Some sports documentaries use their subject as a portal into another world or as a basis to talk about a broader issue, such as race, class or gender. Some are really about personalities and fan service, and this made for video-on-demand look at female tennis players fits the latter category. That said, the mere fact that it’s about female athletes necessitates some engagement with issues around gender, but the emphasis is more personal than political.
Having secured access to some of the biggest names in the game, such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, director Francis Amat and his crew adeptly coax them into what feel mostly like frank discussions of their careers. There is also archive footage of Serena and Venus Williams. It’s a long flurry of crosscuts between talking heads, threaded with abundant archive material and footage of girls playing tennis, interspersed with drippy intertitle poster platitudes from, for example, the philosopher Lao Tzu, and all served on a sticky bed of sentimental instrumental music. It feels made to inspire youngsters into trying the sport, and thus many interviewees emphasise that, yes, it’s hard work, and it’s sad to miss out on your childhood, but look! Trophies! Being No 1! The glamour of Wimbledon!
Due diligence is, though, paid to the downsides, such as the expense and years of training and hard slog. And the film is, at times, touching as these superstars look back wistfully at the careers they had to relinquish once past their athletic prime. Many find solace in coaching and encouraging others to find joy in the game, or in using their celebrity to achieve change, as with the delightful Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who hopes to help ensure that Australia’s indigenous peoples are recognised in the constitution.
• Unraveling Athena is on Amazon Prime Video from 13 July.