Advantage: Tennis Movies

Borg vs. McEnroe


Advantage: Tennis Movies


A survey of notable narrative films featuring the sport centrally or from the sidelines.

Borg vs. McEnroe

Presenting actors as famous real-life figures can be a tricky proposition. But in terms of the legendary tennis rivals of the title, the clear winner of Janus Metz’s unexpectedly sublime film is Sverrir Gudnason’s Björn Borg. The Swedish actor fills the role admirably, conveying the fears and anxieties that go hand in hand with such a solitary, interior sport, and how the mind and the self-doubt it generates can be one’s own toughest opponent. Borg was known as the “perfect” competitor, showing no emotion, but in his early youth (he’s played at ages 9-13 by Borg’s son Leo!) he was more McEnroe-like in his behavior, exhibiting explosive rages on the court, throwing both rackets and insults. In part a deeply affecting character study, the film details the private, quietly obsessive player’s struggles with the invasive nature of celebrity, and his relationships with fiancée Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny) and coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), fleshing out personal alliances that might have been glossed over in favor of more sports action. The wonderfully directed and edited tennis sequences that are included—re-creations of Wimbledon 1980, notably the finals match that the film builds up to, with Borg looking for a fifth victory and McEnroe, the rising star, chasing his first title—generate the same level of tension you’d feel while watching it unfold live. As John McEnroe, Shia LaBeouf convinces more in voice than appearance, but even if his character doesn’t seem as interesting or insightful as Borg’s, the mutual fascination and respect they had for each other comes through, and you can’t help but root for the friendship that does evolve between the two former nemeses later in life.—Laura Kern

In Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning masterwork, the rich, attractive, Jewish Finzi-Contini brother-sister duo invite their friends to play tennis at their walled-in estate in Ferrara, Italy. As the film opens, nine young men and women glide up on their bikes in their best tennis whites, rackets in hand. The gorgeous grounds are all lush greenery and brightly colored flowers, even if Micòl Finzi-Contini (Dominique Sanda) claims that the condition of the court is “worse than a field of potatoes.” She is a stunning sight in her ultra-stylish red headband and white tennis dress trimmed and belted in matching red. It’s 1938, and the group of friends casually discuss the distressing state of politics as the beautifully soothing clinks of balls hitting rackets sound in the background. It becomes known that the Finzi-Contini siblings have people over to play because Jews are no longer welcome at the tennis club, and as the persecution of their people worsens, the physical act of playing tennis disappears from the film. But as the intersecting storylines involving devastating romantic heartbreak and the threat of approaching war turn into lives being roundly torn apart, the sport remains a vivid symbol for the loss of leisure and the simpler days of innocence.—Laura Kern

Hard, Fast and Baeutiful!

The earliest films by Ida Lupino, the prolific actress who was also among the few female auteurs of her generation, brought to life hard-boiled stories of women, and her third feature credit as director was this adaptation of John R. Tunis’s American Girl, an unflattering fictionalized account of Helen Wills, a top tennis star of the 1920s and ’30s whose mother was her constant companion on the circuit. Renamed Florence Farley in the book and film, the young tennis star, played by Sally Forrest as naïve but extremely good-natured, trains by hitting—with extreme precision—the painted rectangles on her garage door as she calls out the numbers written inside them. One day she meets (and falls instantly in love with) Gordon McKay (Robert Clarke), who works at the local country club and invites her to play a few sets with him. She becomes a regular fixture, seen by all as a highly promising competitor, and despite a much-commented-upon weak backhand, she starts a rapid rise in the ranks. But this isn’t your average underdog sports story; rather, it’s a potent look at class relations in professional sports, the corrupting effects of fame, and, most prominently, a disastrously domineering mother (a great Claire Trevor), whose desire to see her daughter succeed is purely self-serving. She treats her husband abominably and cozies up to Florence’s sleazy coach, making sketchy deals so they can afford nice clothes and hotels while also attempting to put off her daughter’s wedding to Gordon. The film features some exciting tennis action (in black and white), legitimized by noted onetime pro player and Hollywood coach Eleanor Tennant, who served as the film’s technical advisor and assisted Forrest with her form.—Laura Kern

JOCKS (1986)
Taking a break from his customary action fare, the late exploitation director Steve Carver applied his questionable talents to making this unlikely amalgam of raunchy ’80s teen sex comedy and sports film, ridiculously beginning and ending with the song “Power Play,” sung by Jimmy Osmond. It focuses on the men’s tennis team of L.A. College, made up of degenerates and one total square—the only player who would choose training over partying. (The opening credits sequence pans over a row of tennis courts to find him taking warming up very seriously.) But as in so many underdog sports stories like The Bad News Bears, the coach (played by Richard Roundtree!) must produce a winning team, in this case to keep the tennis department funded at a school run by a victory-obsessed president (Christopher Lee!) and an athletic director who despises tennis, calling it “a damn pansy sport” (yup, the film has all the homophobia, misogyny, and racism that the ’80s had to offer). The road to victory means reinstating a previously suspended player known only as The Kid, the biggest troublemaker yet most impressive player on the team. The film has its fair share of tennis action, complete with gloriously ’80s hair and gear, as L.A. College players resort to immature tactics to distract opponents—one aggressive dude attempts to continually slam his opponent with the ball; another prances around with flamboyant moves. By Jocks’s rules, the more obnoxious you are on the court, the better chance you have of winning.—Laura Kern

Woody Allen

Upon its release, Match Point was hailed as a return to form for Woody Allen, a distinction given to one of his movies about every five years since 1990 (though if current trends are to be believed, this cycle might now have concluded, leaving 2013’s Blue Jasmine as Woody’s final comeback). The film’s protagonist, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is a tennis pro, and its opening shot features a tennis ball floating from one side of the net to the other, before bouncing off the tape and freezing in midair. However, there is little love for the game shown by the film or its characters. For Chris, tennis was seemingly always a means to a financial end, first in the form of a professional career, and following his lack of success therein, as a way to access the upper-crust world of the country club he coaches at. Finally, his large tennis bag (a rather attractive one whose brand is frustratingly unidentifiable) serves a key role in the film’s climactic murder. (It’s what he carries the weapon in.) Match Point contains a fair number of on-court scenes, but they mostly consist of Chris monotonously feeding balls to his geriatric clientele, or floating his way through a rally. The tennis togs of the day are amusingly oversized and white, somewhat surprisingly passé for a film that doesn’t feel like it was made that long ago—though remember, Roger Federer was playing with a ponytail when Match Point was shot.—Gabriel Jandali Appel

PLAYERS (1979)
The award for most tennis in a narrative film would almost certainly go to Anthony Harvey’s Players, which could be described as an attempt at making Rocky for tennis. The story of a tennis hustler’s journey from sharking opponents in Mexico to playing Centre Court at Wimbledon, Players boasts some of the best and most elaborate scenes of the sport ever put to film. The grass-court final between Chris Christensen (a fictional protagonist) and Guillermo Vilas (the Argentine tennis star playing himself) serves as a framing device—we see a point or two before flashing back to a different episode in Chris’s life that led up to this Wimbledon appearance. It’s not a bad premise, but the material between the tennis sequences doesn’t quite measure up to the on-court splendor. Outside of the backhand-forehand-serve-and-volley choreography, the most fun the film offers comes from imagining the behind-the-scenes forces that led to its creation. It was Robert Evans, legendary producer and tennis fan regularly photographed attending matches well into his eighties, who willed the movie into existence. Insisting that the tennis be convincing, Evans cast Dean Martin’s son Dean-Paul Martin, a former junior champion and novice actor, as his male lead. He also cast his ex-wife Ali MacGraw as the female lead, and recruited seemingly every contemporary tennis star to appear. The wrap-around sequence at Wimbledon was filmed at the actual tournament, and it’s very entertaining to think of the crew taking over the most prestigious event in tennis, all blissfully unaware that they were making a notorious flop. Spoiler alert: Chris loses the final to Vilas, who in real life won every Grand Slam except Wimbledon.—Gabriel Jandali Appel

RACQUET (1979) & SHAMPOO (1975)
Hal Ashby’s Shampoo follows Warren Beatty’s lothario hairdresser George Roundy as he bounces from one client/lover to the next while trying to secure the funds to open his own salon. Shampoo does not feature any actual on-screen tennis. The closest it gets (which is fairly close) is in the introduction of Carrie Fisher’s character, Lorna, who stands on a tennis court holding a racket. George walks with Lorna—the daughter of one of his clients—from the court into the kitchen of her palatial house, where the 18-year-old Fisher memorably asks him: “Wanna fuck?” Similarly, David Winters’s Racquet follows game-show mainstay Bert Convy’s lothario tennis pro Tommy Everett as he bounces from one client/lover to the next as he tries to secure the funds to open his own tennis club. Early in the film, as Tommy tours a lovely private tennis court he cannot afford, he looks up at the middle-aged female realtor, and somewhat desperately asks: “Wanna fuck?” Shampoo is a good movie. Racquet, definitively, is not. But it boasts quite a lot more tennis. And though its low budget means that much of the tennis consists of CLOSE-UP FOREHAND, CLOSE-UP BACKHAND, CLOSE-UP BALL GOING INTO THE NET, it doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. To Racquet’s great credit, it does not take itself seriously whatsoever. Convy’s Tommy zips around 1979 L.A. in a vintage Porsche with a license plate reading “TENNIS.” There are slow-motion orgasm sequences complete with explosions of flowers, cocaine gags aplenty, and Tommy replies to the question “You still play tennis?” with “That’s still my racket” many, many times.—Gabriel Jandali Appel

Wed Anderson Luke Wilson

The youngest of the prodigious Tenenbaum clan, Richie (Luke Wilson) excelled in tennis from a very young age, and went on to become a star player known as “The Baumer.” Wes Anderson, himself a serious aficionado of the sport, tailored the character and his fashionable look after Björn Borg, with Richie sporting a FILA shirt, headband, and similar facial hair, and retiring at the same premature age of 26. We are witness to his 72-error on-court meltdown against his opponent Gandhi in which he completely crumbles on live television. “He’s playing the worst tennis of his life,” declare the announcers—voiced by Anderson and Luke Wilson’s brother Andrew—as he proceeds to take off his shoes and one of his socks, visibly distraught as he looks up toward the friends’ box where Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted sister he’s always secretly loved, sits next to her new hubby (Bill Murray). The Baumer tosses in a sad underhand serve before surrendering completely, sitting down on the court with the score at 0-6, 0-6, 0-4. It’s a public humiliation so great that he chooses to abandon the sport for a lonely life on the sea. Over 20 years later he returns home to his two similarly depressed lost-genius siblings, with his agreeable but sullen demeanor still intact, exhibiting bursts of emotion (to the point of a suicide attempt) only when it comes to Margot. In all but two of his scenes, Richie appears wearing some form of tennis attire. So however distant his dreams may have become, the sport is still clearly embedded in him, and he ultimately becomes a children’s coach at the local YMCA.—Laura Kern

Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train includes one of the greatest tennis sequences put to film. As the movie barrels toward its conclusion, Bruno (the psychopathic antagonist played by Robert Walker) returns to the scene of the crime to frame Guy (the tennis-star protagonist played by Farley Granger) for the murder of Guy’s wife. Guy needs to stop him, but first he has an all-important tennis match. If he can win in straight sets, he may be able to catch Bruno in time. And thus, with this convoluted scenario, Hitchcock sets up a tennis match where the stakes are life and death. What follows is an unforgettable 10-minute sequence filmed at Forest Hills during the 1950 Davis Cup. It begins with long-lens close-ups of Guy serving, the crowd behind him fading into a blur. The film’s camera covers everything: Guy’s POV with a racket jutting into the frame as a ball launches out of it, just behind the service line as a ball lands in the box and bounces over it, beneath the net as balls hit the tape and fall. Guy wins the first two sets, but his opponent comes back and the match is tied at two sets a piece. The dream of winning three sets to none goes down the tubes. The tension builds as onlookers’ heads turn methodically left, then right, following the ball with laser-focus. Of course, the audience doesn’t know what we do, but they understand the stakes of any tennis final. Never addressed is that Guy could merely throw the match and lose three sets to none. If the goal is to get out of there as fast as possible, surely that would be the easiest fix. But of course Guy would want to win. He’s a tennis player.—Gabriel Jandali Appel

While tennis may be far from a central component of George Miller’s ever-watchable comic fantasy, the roughly four minutes devoted to it account for one of its most memorable scenes. Mysterious newcomer-to-town Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) invites the bewitching friend trio of Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie (Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer) to his recently purchased estate for a friendly game of doubles. The horny devil has already bedded Alexandra and Jane, and is now aggressively making his play for Sukie, adding an additional level of rivalry to the proceedings. There’s intentional hitting of other players with the ball and many jealous glances among the divinely outfitted women: Jane in a skimpy black-and-white polka-dot tennis dress and white visor, Alexandra in denim overalls and yellow hair bows, and Sukie in a pastel polo shirt and plaid shorts. The setting too is divine—an impeccably maintained hard court surrounded by statues—and the play itself takes a magical turn. The ball, imprinted with a Van Horne logo, freezes in midair, spinning near Sukie’s head before she hits it back to her opponent in slow motion; while, at another point, she turns around and sends the ball back over the net with a thrust of her behind. There’s also some great cartoon-style net action as Sukie and Daryl battle in a volley so fast-moving that, exhausted, she finally commands the ball to stop—which it does. Daryl ultimately hits the ball up and out of sight, setting off some lightning and a downpour in the process, and ending a wonderful sequence filmed by master DP Vilmos Zsigmond and accompanied by a splendid John Williams score.—Laura Kern

Susan Sarandon George Miller