King Richard and the Cinema of Tennis
Growing up, the only sport that both my older brother and I both had any interest or skill in was tennis, so even though it wasn’t the sport that I would primarily play we would go to tennis camp every year. I had a lot of fun playing and had a lot of friends at the camp but I never quite figured out how to consistently hit with topspin. My brother, however, would win the big tournament the couple of years when he was a high schooler at camp and I was a snot nosed middle schooler. There were a couple of years that I would do some of the less popular sessions of tennis camp at the Hartford indoor facility and in between court time several of us would hang out in the lounge watching live matches and talking about the state of the tennis stars at the time and a little of the history. We would also have Wimbledon on at my grandparent’s house every year and it would be one of the only sports that was friendly to the whole family. There were not a lot of sports fans in my family.
Traditionally, the sport that is considered the most cinematic for focusing on the individual drama of the participant and the physical demands of the event is boxing. For the most part, the story elements work very well, boxers traditionally come from the most oppressed areas of society and they succeed in perhaps the most brutal kind of sport there is, taking and giving punches to the head. Tennis stories often don’t come from people coming from the fringes of society, although the very best stories are those that overcome adversity to succeed. Boxing can be an easier sport to fake, bouncing, dodging and throwing punches, while difficult to look good doesn’t involve as many moving parts as faking a tennis swing where an actor has to be on the move and hit a moving object all while looking believable. Both are solitary sports, boxing places the subjects above the crowd and tennis players are below the crowd, almost in a fish bowl. Perhaps it is that boxing is more “everyman” of a sport that audiences have gravitated to them going back to the early days of cinema and that they often garner awards consideration. The technical difficulty for actors faking it on the tennis court and the upper crust nature of the sport have meant that there have been far fewer great tennis movies until recent years.
There had been a smattering of fictional movies with tennis in them in film history, Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train had a tennis player and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums even shows a little footage of Luke Wilson's on court meltdown. The mid-2000's gave us two fictional tennis movies, Woody Allen's Match Point and romcom Wimbledon. There really hadn't been any prominent tennis biopics until 2017 offered up both Battle of the Sexes and Borg vs McEnroe, and this past year's prominence of King Richard (2021).
Battle of the Sexes (2017) was one that I saw in the theater and despite its lack of fanfare it was one of my favorite films of the year. Emma Stone and Steve Carell both have great performances telling the story of Billie Jean King creating the WTA, having a sexual awakening and playing the battle of the sexes exhibition match against Bobby Riggs. The score is euphoric and the soundtrack is fun, the cinematography is otherworldly with soft white light for the highs and directed with a sense of anxiety for the lows. Steve Carell captures an old guy goofball character that is endearing even when sexist (although he doesn't seem to really believe it) and just as corny as Bobby Riggs seems to have been.
Borg vs McEnroe (2017) premiered just five days after Battle of the Sexes at a different film festival and takes place seven years later. This tells the story of the fifth straight and final Wimbledon championship for Bjorn Borg, against Shia Labeouf's John McEnroe. Labeouf captures the spirit of McEnroe so well that it is easy to overlook any physical differences between the two men. This is mostly a character study of the two champions, their seeming polarity and their actual similarities, rather than the competition between the two. McEnroe does approach the tournament with Borg in his sights, but he has a fascination and understanding of Borg’s extreme competitiveness rather than seeing him as a rival. Borg doesn’t seem to think of McEnroe at all. Although he is obviously aware of him, he is more concerned with the rituals to prepare for a match like riding in the same car every year and testing the strings of his rackets with his bare feet. This actually compares nicely with a documentary that is much less straightforward in storytelling, the 2018 documentary, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection. This doc is also the story of a tennis player at the top of his game and a heartbreaking loss in the final of a Grand Slam. In this case, it is McEnroe that is at the top of his game and he would also lose in the final. In both cases, his next Grand Slam championship would be the next time he would compete at Wimbeldon. All three of these tennis movies from 2017-2018 are great and all in very different ways.
King Richard (2021), the most recent of these movies, just from 2021 and it is now going through a push for the Oscars, namely for Will Smith’s titular performance. His character isn’t actually one of the tennis players in this movie, he plays the father to the very young Venus and Serena Williams. This story is much fresher in history, it’s the only one of these stories where I have memories of the Williams sisters in their very first Grand Slam successes, let alone their storied careers. However, I had almost no knowledge of their backstories, let alone a full picture of their Father’s involvement in their careers. This shows him struggling with gangs in Compton while training the girls, fighting to find a coach to train them for free, forays into the toxicity of juniors, signing with a coach that brought the whole family out to Florida to train at a complex, and finally Venus’s ultimate debut as a professional. The girls and their many sisters are all just perfect children in so many ways, not just that there are two that are special athletes. While they are polite and high achievers, they’re still kids who goof around and mess with their dad. And Venus and Serena love playing tennis, they aren’t just doing it because they are good or their dad is pushing them into it. The drama comes from the flawed father whose plan for success is prophetic yet problematically rigid. He might be the “King,” but his wife is just as responsible for the training of their children on and off the court, perhaps more, she just wasn’t the outspoken one in the couple. I could watch a series that continues the story, I think it’s mostly peaks with few valleys on the court, although Serena overtook Venus early in their careers, they are incredibly friendly about any rivalries and happily play doubles together.
While tennis is hardly the most covered sport in film history and it is only until recently that there has been a batch of excellent films depicting it, that batch should be considered noteworthy. And there are many well known stories to be told, I think a dramatization of Arthur Ashe’s life could be incredible. One lesser known story that could make for a great film popped out while I was reading a list of the winners of the French Open where the only graphic in the list was the flags of the winners. Scrolling down through the men’s doubles champions it is jarring to notice a Nazi flag for the 1937 winners, Gottfried von Crumm and Henner Henkel. Apparently these two fellows had incredibly trying lives in the years that followed their championship together. The Nazi party attempted to exploit von Cramm for propagandistic purposes and he refused so he was jailed for a time in 1938 as a suspected homosexual. He admitted to an affair with a jewish actor that lasted for a few years, blaming the time on an affair his wife had on their honeymoon with French tennis pro. He was conscripted into the German Army during World War II, fighting in brutal cold and earning an Iron Cross, only to be dismissed from service in 1942 due to his prior conviction. Ironically this probably saved his life. He went on to play tennis after the war and ultimately married an American Heiress of the Woolworth’s fortune. Henkel, however was drafted in 1942, having playing right up until receiving his notice of service. He was sent to the eastern front, coincidentally around the time von Cramm was dismissed. During the Battle of Stalingrad Henner was shot in the leg and died of the injury in January 1943, less than a year after his final tournament.
There’s such a rich history of tennis and those that have excelled on the court. Even the invention of the game as played by medieval monks in 14th century France, batting balls at each other in the courtyards of their monastery, yelling “Tenez” in Old French to mean “hold,” “receive,” or “take,” as a warning of an upcoming serve feels cinematic. Hell, the game is even mentioned in a 16th century tale from King Arthur’s court as Sir Gawain plays tennis against 17 giants. And now it is a game with stars from all corners of the Earth who still strive for every point as if they can simply swing, grunt and will themselves to victory.
Next: The Long Goodbye and L.A. private eye movies kind of set in the '70's.