Hey, everyone. Welcome back. Quick housekeeping:
• We’ll have our 2023 Australian Open seed reports later this week.
• We’ll also have our 2023 Australian Open visitors guide later this week.
• Good soldiering: Tennis Channel will have a nightly two-hour Australian Open pregame show. Lindsay Davenport, Steve Weisman and I will be yakking starting at 7 p.m. ET.
• We’ll get back to conventional mailbagging next week, but for now …
For weeks, a number of you have asked about the status of the Netflix “Drive to Survive tennis series.” Some answers: It’s called Break Point. The first tranche of episodes comes out Jan. 13. Here’s a link with all the details. And here are some thoughts:
I was sent review screeners for the first five episodes with an embargo date of Jan 8. Given that it is Jan. 9, I’m working on the assumption that it’s O.K. to share some impressions. Without spoiling too much, here’s a two-sentence review: It’s quite good, dazzlingly so at times. Also, you are not the target audience.
What do I mean by that? Let’s start with the virtues. There’s a lot to recommend here. Bearing the echoes of Drive to Survive—the series that popularized and demystified Formula One for so many—Break Point is slick in the best possible way, a briskly paced, deftly shot, deftly edited series that, overall, succeeds in what it sets out to do. The five episodes I have watched go a long way toward turning tennis into compelling programming by personalizing the athletes, entering restricted access areas and establishing story lines that lay out the arc of the season.
If you knew little to nothing about tennis, it would be difficult not come away with a greater understanding of the sport and its challenges. It would be similarly difficult not to emerge with real fondness (and real empathy) for each of the featured players.
As is often the case with “running documentary format,” (See: Cheer, Last Chance U) the filmmakers place a series of bets. Some pay off handsomely, from the decision to follow the novelty act that is Nick Kyrgios in Australia (where he began in the midst of a career crisis and ended up winning the men’s doubles title) to devoting much real estate to the singular Ons Jabeur (who, of course, would go on to crack the top five and reach two major finals in 2022). Other story lines are less compelling or pay off more modestly as the season progresses. So it goes.
The series is, happily, light on technical details and match analysis. The viewer will not come away with an appreciation for extreme grips or the importance of the break-back game. But there is real tennis insight here, mostly about the mental/spiritual demands of the sport. In particular, the filmmakers nail one of modern tennis’s great paradoxes: It’s a ferocious individual sport but (perhaps as consequence) has also morphed into a team sport. The filmmakers make the inspired choice of limiting the central characters but devoting a lot of time to their coaches, spouses, significant others, physios and parents watching nervously on site and at home, continents away.
So, where do you—committed tennis fan, reading a midweek tennis column, holding your firm, data-based GOAT positions—fit into this? Um, well … You’ll enjoy this, but you’re not the demo the series is trying to reach. Break Point is neither journalistic nor intended as a faithful recap of the 2022 season.
Given the goal of “scaling up” and getting the mass audience to form attachments to characters during the parabola of the tennis season, there are glaring omissions that will confound/amuse tennis fans. There are sequences shot out of chronological order. There are big moments and themes that get short shrift (or no shrift), including Ash Barty’s mic-drop retirement, Iga Swiatek admirably making the most of her battlefield promotion to No. 1, Djokovic’s 2022 Australian Open circus or Nadal’s dramatic comeback in that Aussie Open final, which gave him that lead in the all-time major race over Roger Federer and Djokovic.
Which brings us to the second point: As we knew all along, some camps would be more receptive to this project than others. In particular, the Big Three and Serena were, understandably, less keen on being trailed by camera crews than were their younger understudies. The filmmakers have turned this into a virtue. Instead of pumping out another hagiography—with references to a “golden era” and the all-time major scoreboard—this series spins the plot forward and introduces a new cast, happy to provide access as they approach their prime, not reflect on it.
This will ultimately benefit tennis. Throughout, I couldn’t help thinking that the folks in tennis’s various marketing divisions could scarcely have scripted it better:
“How are we going to transition out of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Serena era?”
“Hear me out: let’s launch a Netflix series that focuses, almost exclusively, on players in their 20s and goes entire episodes without even mentioning these generational stars!”
“That’s great! Because we are sort of at this break point for the sport—”
“Hold that thought. I think we have our title.”
Are there some unforced errors? Of course there are. With so much culled material—we would love to know the ratio of shot footage to used footage—way too much of the episodes are larded with the flabbiest of sports clichés and tropes and hollow quotes. (Even Kyrgios, often the embodiment of blazing candor, can come across blandly.) Time and again, players “give 110%.” They traffic in “nightmares” and “dreams since I was a kid.” We get the obligatory shopworn reference to players so competitive they hate to lose, even when playing cards. Being the favorite can bring pressure that an underdog doesn’t confront. There’s so much potential gold in all those hours of filming; it’s a pity that precious time is devoted to hollow generalities that don’t illuminate, don’t propel the plot, don’t help audiences connect and engage.
And granted, I’m writing this before seeing the episodes set at Wimbledon 2022—where Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas, memorably, engaged in a cage fight masquerading as a grass-court tennis match—but so far, all of the show’s conflict is of the internal variety. Break Point does an outstanding job looking at tennis players’ mental struggles, players as their own worst enemies, doubts that swell and overwhelm. (It’s easy to see why collective mental health on both tours is so precarious.)
But otherwise, through five episodes, everyone likes and respects everyone else. Tennis seems more a genial band of colleagues in a traveling circus than a group of competitors bearing some animus toward the people trying to take their scarce and finite resources (money, endorsements, attention, glory, ranking points).
Casper Ruud and Holger Rune may have nearly come to blows in the locker room after playing in the 2022 French Open, but you won’t see that here. (Strange, given that there is other locker room footage from after their match—clearly cameras were rolling when this happened). Players (like Simona Halep) might abruptly fire their coaches or seek to form a breakaway players association or wonder about Peng Shuai’s fate or face partner violence allegations. But you wouldn’t know it here. Again, no one is expecting an Eva Orner–style journalistic exposé. But for a dramatic series, Break Point is conspicuously—even weirdly—light on tension and friction. So far, anyway.
And this is a tennis fault and not a filmmaking fault, but, visually, sport’s attendance issues are thrown into jarring, stark relief. We are told about matches that come freighted with pressure and will change the entire trajectory of careers, all as heartstring music swells to emphasize the significance. Then the cameras pan to …stands that are 20% filled. Tennis fans are, sadly, accustomed to this tableau. You imagine the non-tennis fan confused, wondering why there are these vast oceans of empty seats when these are supposed to be such critically important intervals.
But really, those are quibbles, a few loose points in what are otherwise solid five sets. Is this series going to transform tennis? Unlikely. But it will draw in new fans and harden the passion of old ones. And the winners are plentiful. Andy Roddick is, predictably, excellent as a wise, plain-speaking been-there-folks former player. Less predictably, Maria Sharapova makes a series of perceptive observations throughout. Our pal Courtney Nguyen was an outstanding choice as the scene-setter who helps spackle holes in the plot and offer explainers—for example, there are 128 men and women in major draws—without condescension. I want to hire the Break Point editing team for my next project. The musical score can be a bit overwrought, but it does a lot of lifting to nudge the non-tennis crowd to experience the drama and sense the tension at the right times.
Above all, the series soars in nailing—absolutely nailing—tennis’s secret hidden in plain sight: that the glamor is a mirage. There might be fancy hotels in Paris and Madrid, and swag bags in Australia, and seven-figure paydays on the line. But, at its essence, this is a merciless sport. It beats you up mentally. All but one player leaves town for the next caravan stop on a losing streak. It’s hard to divorce your self-worth from your results (a reality made all the more vivid when you pivot away from the stars with double-digit majors and nine-digit nest eggs to focus on the Paula Badosa types, simply trying to fulfill expectation and perhaps, if all goes right, bag a major).
At one point Marie Auger, the thoroughly likable mother of the thoroughly likable Felix Auger-Aliassime, marvels at what her son must endure in his job, the occupational requirements of being a top player. It might as well be the catchphrase for the Break Point series. “The demands on these players are enormous. You need an incredible level of physical, mental and emotional strength. So I have a lot of admiration for my son.”