Review of the tennis documentary series from the creators of Drive to Survive.

Despite 20 years of trying, I never quite figured out how to properly evangelize tennis. Maybe it’s because I take his beauty for granted, along with the way he seems primed for high-stakes narrative drama. Tennis is a sport made up of individuals, each with their own style and personality, who compete for prize money and glory, displaying breathtaking athleticism and artistry. Really, who could ask for anything more?

But in the United States at least, tennis faces serious obstacles as it seeks new fans. The basic rules of the game—especially the rules about how the game is scored—are complicated and difficult to explain. There are terms of art out the wazoo. A tennis “season” lasts 11 months, and the vast majority of tournaments are not shown on basic cable. Except for the four Grand Slams and most Masters 1000 tournaments, you can’t be sure that a player you like will play in a particular tournament. The three Grand Slam tournaments are held on other continents, and many of their matches are broadcast live at hours invisible to all but die-hard fans. Then there are the players themselves, who are media-trained from an early age, give dozens of press conferences a year and play a sport with such intense rules of decorum that it’s often hard to glimpse the humanity beneath their tight-jawed facades.

Netflix’s new documentary series Breakpoint attempts to break through those barriers, focusing on a group of top tennis players during the 2022 season, showing the human dramas lurking behind their tournament results. While the show is sometimes successful in showing what tennis life is really like, the show often feels constrained by convention and ignores the actual playing of the sport, which remains the most interesting and dramatic thing about it.

According to a recent interview with Esquire, creators James Gay-Reese and Paul Martin wanted to Breakpoint to explore the more human sides of sports that ordinary viewers rarely get to see. “People see tennis as a fancy game,” said Martin, “It’s dirty, tennis, and it’s hard. We sat down and did probably 25 interviews with players at the Australian Open last year. And every one of them that we’ve done, James and I have come out of them and we’ve said, ‘I don’t know why they’re doing this. I honestly don’t know what the good side is. Because it looks like torture.’ “

Tennis players renounce any semblance of a meaningful, stable childhood or early adulthood. They freelance, live, support their teams and save for their post-retirement lives entirely from tour winnings and endorsement deals. Match play itself is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding, and players lose far more tournaments in a year than they win. On the men’s side, the dominance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – a dominance that is only now beginning to wane after almost 20 years – meant that the upper echelons of the sport were all but closed to multiple generations of players. On the women’s side, the depth and variety of talent turns even early-round matches into tense, high-stakes affairs. The players who face these challenges are mostly very young. Oldest player included Breakpoint is Ajla Tomljanović, who is 28 years old. The youngest, Felix Auger Aliassime, is 21 years old. I don’t know what you did when you were 21, but I mostly did drugs and directed plays with my friends. Auger Aliassime sees his friends and family in Montreal so rarely that, in Breakpointin the fifth episode, his team brings a few dozen of them to his practice on his birthday. When they show up, an obviously moved Auger Aliassime gives them a thank-you speech that also makes it clear that he won’t have time to hang out with them.

The series’ humanism, its insistence on seeing players as people rather than symbols, is its strongest asset. Within a few minutes, Breakpoint can point us to the Jekyll and Hyde transformation of Nick Kyrgios into a raging egomaniac on the court, the stubbornness of Taylor Fritz, the anxiety and depression of Paula Bedosa, the kindness of Ajla Tomjanovic that can sometimes turn into passivity on the court, and the self-defeating perfectionism of Maria Sakkari. Even less tortured players like Matteo Berretini, Casper Ruud and Ons Jabeur come across as real people. Interviews with the players’ coaches and physiotherapists fill out our understanding of their daily lives and the issues they struggle with on and off the pitch. The stakes of each tournament—and each match—are clearly set, thanks in particular to the efforts of Hall of Famer Andy Roddick and WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen, who serve as talking heads. Show host Kari Lia has a special eye for significant wordless moments. Watching Casper Ruud meticulously put on a headband before the French Open final against Rafael Nadal reveals much more about his use of ritual to calm his nerves than a quote ever could.

But when we get to the actual playing of the matches, something goes wrong. Breakpoint he feels almost afraid to show us the sport he is talking about. The glory of tennis, its beauty and drama, can be found in point building, the way players take advantage of their opponents, overpower them or manipulate them into an invincible position in the literal blink of an eye. Individual players are revealed within the dots, as surely as a classical pianist playing Bach. Some matches can even lead to a single point, as momentum constantly shifts from one player to another. The best tennis journalism recognizes this. John McPhee’s masterful book Game levels for example, it tells us a lot about the history of racing in the late 60s, the transition of the game from amateur to professional, the biography of Arthur Ashe and much more. But he does it all through the play-by-play of one match, as the players tell McPhee their thought process point by point by point.

Breakpoint it only gives us this inside look at the players’ strategic thought process several times throughout the first five episodes. For the most part, it relies instead on close-ups of players kicking the ball, as majestic as it is repetitive, while dramatic music heightens the stakes. Inconsequential matches are sometimes given space that could go to in-depth exploration of key ones. The flaws of this approach are particularly evident in episode 3, which tells the story of an injured Taylor Fritz’s unlikely victory over an even more injured Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells. The championship match ended in a tie-break, especially in its last three minutes, while the differences between victory and defeat for both were narrowed to a microscopic level. Almost none of this makes it to the screen Breakpointwhich chops the game into incoherence to focus on Fritz’s final serve.

Some of that is almost certainly due to Gay-Reese and Martin trying to replicate the success of their hit series Formula 1: Drive to survive. Breakpoint borrows heavily from the successful, er, formula they show that in both good and bad ways. It has the propulsive energy of its predecessor and a sense of human drama, but it also has its own artificiality. As I watched it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that many of the conversations were staged; why else would Felix Auger Aliassime tell his longtime coaching staff about his childhood rivalry with his sister? And using a fake announcer’s voice to bridge narrative gaps and set the scene for each game gets madder as the season progresses. Breakpoint has an incredible approach and his team knows how to tell a polished, compelling story, but the show needs to learn what all great tennis coaches know: when to step back and trust the player and the sport to get the job done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *