Hard, Fast & Beautiful

William Klein Yannick Noah


Hard, Fast & Beautiful

By Andréa Picard

Tennis as both timeless allure and time capsule in William Klein’s The French.

William Klein Björn Borg
Klein making The French

“Between tennis and psychoanalysis I chose tennis.”—Jean-Luc Godard

In May 2021, international media outlets reported that 23-year-old Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka had become the highest-paid female athlete in history, her combined prize earnings and endorsements amounting to one helluva metaphorical Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag. Days later, communicating via her preferred methods on social, Instagram and Twitter, Osaka made headlines again, by announcing, with her characteristic combo of casual and cool, that she would be refraining from doing press at the upcoming Roland-Garros Grand Slam (i.e., The French Open; i.e., “The French”), including the obligatory, hot-seat post-match press conferences. Citing the need to protect the mental health of athletes and supplementing her post with past examples of toxic needling from sports journalists, Osaka makes history by refusing to play by rules that she considers harmful. By imposing boundaries and asserting her limits of control, she is single-handedly taking on rituals of the game that transcend tennis itself—ones that have been in place since the advent of broadcasting, when sports became synonymous with big money.

Of course, she can afford the fines that she’ll be slapped with for each refusal, but it is precisely that privilege that she is calling upon to confront some of the aggression that is intrinsic to these formalities, to the old-school system that has largely gone unchallenged and unchecked. The post-match or post-game commentary (choose your sport) in the locker room or press scrum is where tears are shed, vulnerabilities are exposed, and an athlete’s ability to maintain composure and be media-savvy is put to the test during the most inopportune time—when they are exhausted, emotionally wasted, sometimes ecstatic, other times broken. It makes for great theater (and cinema), but at whose expense and for whose benefit?

Osaka had already discombobulated the media early on in her career, with her adorable press-shy tangents and bizarro digressions (which endeared her to fans and helped make her a star with the help of said press), but this happened most forcefully late last summer at the US Open (which she won for the second time), where her on-court BLM activism was met, for the most part, by white journalists struggling to formulate even mildly intelligent questions about her brave stand in a blatantly racist country. Osaka is playing tennis on her own terms, knows the power of her platform, and is insisting on parameters to preserve her mental health as a racialized person in a disproportionately and historically white elite sport. And while her statement was tied to her lack of confidence on clay and was very much lacking in nuance and context, it has become a lightning rod for those pitting the demands for safe spaces against fragile egos and entitlement, and the obligations that accompany being a professional athlete against the need for systemic reevaluation, not unlike the reckoning around equal pay. While many have stated that Osaka has consistently received fair and friendly treatment from the media—unlike Serena Williams, who has endured confrontation and overt racism for much of her career—there’s no doubt that the polemics of the discourse, like them or not, are indicative of a sea change.

Thus, the stage had been amply set for spectacular drama and debate at this year’s Roland-Garros, already pushed back a week in the clay-court schedule in order to allow for a reduced capacity of spectators during this ongoing, unprecedented pandemic. Are we witnessing the stirrings of the end of the ancien régime? Will the French assert their devotion to the traditional règles du jeu? There may be heightened anticipation this year, especially as the traditional “Big Three” men’s players—Federer, Nadal (“the king of clay”), and Djokovic—continue to make history with numbers, but as Serge Daney (the beloved French film critic, who also wrote a tennis column for Libération) famously said about The French: “What is great about Roland-Garros, is that it’s like the finals everyday.” And, sure enough, l’affaire Osaka blew up after her first-round win and the player was fined and threatened with expulsion. She subsequently pulled out of the tournament and the tennis world has been thrust into the mainstream spotlight.

William Klein Jimmy Connors
Jimmy Connors and fans

This extraordinary backdrop makes William Klein’s too-little-seen cult-classic documentary The French (1982) a tremendously timely and enormously fascinating watch right now. When the film was shot 40 years ago as a commission from the French Tennis Federation led by former champion and journalist Philippe Chatrier (for whom center court is named), the iconoclastic American-French photographer and filmmaker was given a never-before-offered (and never-to-be-repeated) look at Roland-Garros from behind the scenes during its 85th edition. Not only does Klein film players being physically bombarded by the media, paparazzi, and rabid fans (who make it onto the court in droves and with ease, the security detail seemingly nonexistent), but the filmmaker’s multiple, handheld 16mm cameras wade in and out of the men’s and women’s locker rooms with astounding candor, sometimes voyeuristically capturing a tennis player blow-drying her hair while in her underwear, or in close-up on the massage table. The proximity to the players is shocking, as they are filmed in various states of undress, casually hanging out in the lounge, wryly commenting on matches being watched on boxy televisions from shabby tan leather sofas. The bodies of the spectators are equally near as we see the hordes pushing through the entry gates like their lives depend on it, ready to stampede their way to their ticketed seats in a ritualistic frenzy.

Each aspect of the tournament is observed in a seemingly unassuming and desultory manner as the film proceeds joyously and with ardent curiosity through a succession of 14 loosely formed chapters—demarcated by an eclectic range of music and Fujifilm primary-color blocks that are as Godardian as they are emblematic of the French tricolor flag. Moving chronologically through the stages of the Slam, The French begins with the preparations of the stadium and grounds—their adornment with flowers, the warm-up sessions, the charity events—and continues through to the women’s and men’s finals and the ceremonial hoisting of the trophies by the champions: the Czech player Hana Mandlíková and Swedish superstar and that edition’s poster-boy Björn Borg. Funnily, the ultimate photo op was orchestrated amid the crowd in the bleachers and Mandlíková’s triumphant trophy-in-hand run up the stairs is interrupted by an attention-seeking imposter wearing a sandwich board stating his desire to meet Pope “Jean-Paul II.” But he’s no match for the women’s champion, who shoves him aside to rightfully claim her big moment in the sun. The film is replete with such off-kilter moments and unspoken commentary, and while it seems to be a fly-on-the-wall observational documentary, with Wiseman-esque detours into the administrative proceedings—such as the players’ draw, the broadcast meetings, and the rain-delay schedules, in which biases can obviously be perceived—a closer look reveals some of the irony for which Klein is known.

Like his brilliant documentary Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1969), The French foregoes voiceover commentary, relying instead on sly dialectical editing—which both Godard and Daney consider the intrinsic link between tennis and cinema, their two passions. Godard has often said that the beauty of tennis is le renvoie, the fact that when you hit the ball, it is returned to you as a form of dialogue. In countless emblematic tennis scenes like in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), which makes prodigious use of insert shots to both elongate and compress time, the shot/countershot structure is mimetically employed to follow the ball’s shot/countershot trajectory, and inserts of spectators panning their heads from side to side is used in all of film history’s great tennis scenes—often to comedic effect or to heighten suspense. Here, Klein rarely alternates the shots during the matches, shooting mostly from an angle above and behind one of the baselines  (as regularly seen on broadcasts), and instead alternates between inside and outside of the stadium, between players and spectators, between body parts, sometimes skipping the opponents’ returns with a deliberate focus on one side, and also inserts conversations that are not happening in real time, cleverly emphasizing to what degree players get into each other’s heads. He completely deconstructs the matches, revealing their head-spinning prismatic angles.

In other words, Klein formally demonstrates how he also managed to infiltrate mental spaces at Roland-Garros. French virtuoso Yannick Noah—still in his ascendency days, not yet an icon but nevertheless oozing Hollywood charisma in a superbly lit close-up—wistfully recounts a game that haunts him while splayed out on the massage table in his jockstrap: the longest rally he ever played against baseline Borg and the effect of the protracted point (“a psychological point” he says), which Noah ultimately won but which also seemed not to arouse any reaction from the stoic Swedish star. Klein then cuts to Borg in another space entirely and picks up the conversation as if Borg was replying to Noah directly, his barely veiled vulnerabilities rising to the fore as a portent of things to come. Meanwhile, his wife Mariana is signing autographs like a rock star in the stands wearing hip shades and a red leather jacket, fully immersed in Borgmania.

Virginia Ruzici and Chris Evert
Virginia Ruzici and Chris Evert

Alongside Borg and Noah, the film features John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Năstase (and his affable bodyguard, Bambino), Chris Evert, Virginia Ruzici, and Martina Navratilova—all legends of the game who became icons in a pre-Internet era. The look of the players, like that of the crowd is unmistakably ’80s. The stadium is bedecked with people wearing bucket hats and oversized sunglasses; some have feathered hair and handlebar mustaches, while many dangle cigarettes from their fingers or lips. (There are ashtrays everywhere!) The film’s vintage patina is deeply enjoyable, from the compact wooden rackets and short shorts (including short satin shorts) to the now-sought-after classic brands like Ellesse and Le Coq Sportif, a welcome relief from today’s over-branded and sometimes garish Lycra wear. What we are witnessing in The French is the emergence of the star system in tennis, when style and image became paramount: Borg’s headband and tucked long hair (emulated on the tournament’s poster), Evert’s perky ponytail tied with a ribbon, McEnroe’s USA-emblazoned jacket, Lendl’s neat and boyish side part and his warm-up vest. Many of these expressions of style belie a certain media timidity and wariness—and many of the players can be seen actively fleeing or at least partially dodging Klein’s camera, registering discomfort and bashfulness because of its intrusiveness. When Lendl refuses to take his clothes off for the camera, he is coaxed into exposing a bit of skin as he awkwardly keeps his jacket on during a massage. One senses that Klein, searching for the most unfiltered views, is trying to push as far as he can go with unrestricted access, to see beyond personas, beyond the shroud of greatness.

The appearance of the matches themselves is strikingly different from what we see today on those very same courts. With wooden rackets, the play on the notoriously slower clay terrain (la terre battue, generally considered the most difficult surface to master) appears almost comically sluggish—not quite as exaggerated as M. Hulot’s antics, but dramatically leisurely in comparison to modern high-speed, all-muscle winners, and more-dominant serve-and-volley style. Still, the matches maintain their aura of tension and anticipation, and sometimes even grace. The thrill of the game buoys every point; it includes glimmers of agony and ecstasy, and extraordinary displays of physical and mental prowess. Klein includes the commentator box, the broadcast room, coaches gossiping in the stands (at one point, a racial slur is quietly lobbed at Noah from a fan), players watching on TV in the changing rooms, the umpire getting an earful from an agitated McEnroe in meltdown mode—everyone is watching and simultaneously being watched. But what is just as striking is the sound. The “tok” emanating from the balls hitting the wooden rackets is startling and so dissimilar to what we hear in matches today; it strangely emphasizes the utter loneliness of the duel in the dirty field.

Contradictions abound at Roland-Garros and Klein mischievously trades in those binaries, displaying the French formalities and mannered elegance alongside certain vulgarities (like crude sex jokes heard in passing), the white uniforms quickly covered in clay, the rivalries and the friendships, the icons versus the complex human beings caught up in the spectacle, commerce, passion, and competition of it all. The film ends on three uncanny and unexplained still images—a triumphant McEnroe, McEnroe and Borg on a grass court at Wimbledon, and, lastly, Borg in stunned defeat. The French is a portrait of the 1981 edition of the French Open and all its complex inner workings, but also notably of the last Grand Slam that Borg won. That same year, he lost to McEnroe at Wimbledon and at the US Open, and exited the sport shortly thereafter at the age of 26. When asked about that long rally with Noah when Borg lost the point but displayed no emotion, the fashionable but awkward star conceded: “I’m not a machine, I’m like everybody else, I’m not a machine.” His repetition is telling, there to challenge perceived incredulity. Fast-forward to 2021 when one of the biggest stars of tennis withdraws from Roland-Garros by posting a note on social media, expressing something remarkably similar. •

Andréa Picard is a curator, writer, and amateur tennis player. She is a senior film curator at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Jean-Luc Godard once challenged her to a tennis match.

William Klein Björn Borg
Björn Borg