Streaming: anyone for tennis?

We’re in the thick of Wimbledon, which leads me to think, as I do while watching any tennis tournament, of what a strangely cinematic sport it is – so variable in its rhythms and moods, and intensely character-driven in a way team sports can’t quite manage. So why has tennis always drawn the short straw when it comes to film? Relative to other sports of equivalent popularity, there’s a notable shortage of classic tennis-oriented films – and in the best of them, the sport often plays a supporting role.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant, slithery 1951 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (YouTube), changing the protagonist’s occupation from architect to tennis player perfectly upped the well-bred, clean-cut image that set off the moral murk of the plot – and allowed Hitchcock to stage a tight, tense tennis-match set piece. Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005; Google Play) similarly contrasted clean-starched on-court decorum against noir-y misbehaviour, to somewhat wobblier effect.

Tennis was also just the right sport to complement Katharine Hepburn’s forthright, shoulders-back elegance in Pat and Mike (1952; Amazon), perhaps the most charming of her collaborations with Spencer Tracy. As a prodigious athlete – in championship tennis and golf – who enlists Tracy’s shady sports promoter to boost her performance, her golden-girl brittleness volleys beautifully with his rougher candour. While you’d think it’s the ideal sport to pair with the romantic comedy genre, few films have attempted the mixed doubles setup beyond 2004’s sunny Wimbledon (Chili) – which, despite appealing star turns from Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany, left plenty of room for improvement on the premise. Inspired by a record-setting three-day match at Wimbledon in 2010, the mockumentary 7 Days in Hell (2015; Now TV) gave tennis broader comic treatment: it’s more silly than sharp, but Andy Samberg is a hoot as a brattish Andre Agassi proxy.

Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany in Wimbledon.
Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany in Wimbledon. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

More recently, a handful of biopics and documentaries have filled out the tennis subgenre a bit. The highest profile of them, 2017’s Battle of the Sexes (iTunes), made an absorbing romp from the irresistible true story of the landmark exhibition match between Billie Jean King and hot-headed male veteran Bobby Riggs – buoyed up by big, charismatic performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell and high-kitsch 1970s styling. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the first film to take on the tale: the TV-made When Billie Beat Bobby (2001; Amazon Prime) is less sleek and stylish, but boasts fine work from Holly Hunter and Ron Silver.

Another real-life tennis figure to get repeated screen treatment is Renée Richards, the pioneering transgender player who successfully fought the United States Tennis Association for the right to play as a woman in the 1970s. Second Serve, a TV film about her with a committed Vanessa Redgrave in the lead, can’t be legally streamed online, but the 2011 documentary Renée (ESPN Player) is more enlightening anyway: it may hedge its bets on a matter of debate still raging in women’s sport, but does justice to Richards’s human complexity.

Serena and Venus Williams, meanwhile, are still awaiting their biopic treatment (it’s coming later this year, though centred on Will Smith as their father, Richard), but they were the subject of a glowing documentary, Venus and Serena (Amazon Prime), in 2012. It’s bright and diverting, but strictly a work of fan service. Serena’s press adversary John McEnroe, meanwhile, has been granted the documentary-narrative double. The biopic, Borg vs McEnroe (2017; Curzon Home Cinema), is solid enough: smart, restrained and well-acted by Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason, it makes a taut psychodrama of the titular rivalry.

But the documentary, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Now TV), is sublime. More an obsessive visual essay than a standard informational doc, it exquisitely scrutinises 16mm footage of McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final to meditate on the physical and psychological strains of the sport, and the camera’s role in capturing them for an audience. Released to too little fanfare three years ago, it may well be the greatest tennis film ever made – here’s hoping there’s more competition to come.

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