Features Film

Game, Set and Action: Tennis on Film

FEW sports translate better onto the big-screen than tennis.

With two competitors (occasionally four) on court, there is not the same clutter of bodies as in football, rugby, hockey or American Football.

Likewise, the compact size of the tennis court ensures easily followed and captured action. This back-and-forth action also feeds seamlessly into dramatic storytelling.

In short, tennis has a contained simplicity that lends itself to film. These qualities will be on display in the coming weeks, as two high-profile tennis films make it onto the big-screen.

First, American tennis legend John McEnroe (played by Shia LaBeouf) looks to overcome fierce rival Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) in Janus Metz Pedersen’s film Borg vs McEnroe.

Then, premiering at the 2017 BFI Film Festival, Emma Stone and Steve Carrell star in Battle of the Sexes, the real life story of the inter-gender contest between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973.

This story has been told on the big-screen before. When Billie Beat Bobby (2001) saw Holly Hunter and Ron Silver take up the lead roles in a film that thrived off its comedy elements more than its drama.

Yes, the tennis court has long been setting for laughter in film. In School for Scoundrels (1960), Raymond (Terry-Thomas) and Henry (Ian Carmichael) play a game of tennis as they bid to impress April (Janette Scott). Henry, who has the sun in his eyes, is hopelessly  beaten by his rival – both on-court and in love. ‘Hard cheese!’ is the blue-blooded call from a triumphant Raymond.

It is a bitter high-school past which drives the amusingly fierce on-court competition between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Helen (Rose Byrne) in Bridesmaids (2011). Annie is so hell-bent on winning that she berates her struggling doubles partner by yelling: ‘Get your shit together, Carol!’

Comedies such as The Wedding Ringer (2015), Mr Deeds (2002) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2012) rely on the physical humour of people unsuspectingly getting hit by tennis balls.

Whereas Barry (voiced by Jerry Seinfeld), our insect protagonist in Bee Movie (2007), gets stuck to a tennis ball and is hit back-and-forth during a match between humans Ken (Patrick Warburton) and Vanessa (Renee Zellweger).

In Good Kids (2016), nerd turned daring ‘yes’ man – at least for the summer- Andy (Nicholas Braun) teaches tennis to mature women and ends up with more than he bargained for – sex and a yeast infection.

Sean Williams Scott reunites with Dude Where’s My Car director Danny Leiner to play a failed tennis pro turned high-school coach in Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach (2009). Mark this one down as a ridiculous – yet fun – tennis version of Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).

Not to forget, there have been equally ridiculous tennis-centric comedies such Nobody’s Perfect (1990), Break Point (2014) and mockumentary 7 Days of Hell (2015). Mark those down as miss-able.

Classy high-schooler Cher (Alicia Silverstone) complains about the ridiculousness of PE as she refuses to hit a tennis ball in the much-beloved Clueless (1995). Tennis is for the rich, but only if they feel like it. More importantly, this is the scene where we are introduced to plot-driving new student – and soon-to-be popular kid – Tai (Brittany Murphy).

In Roxanne (1987) and The Apartment (1960), tennis rackets are used for unconventional purposes. A long-nosed C.D. Bales (Steve Martin) beats up two bullies with his racket in the former film, while Bud (Jack Lemmon) strains spaghetti with his racket in the latter.

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Where there is laughter, romance is often never far away – and that is no different on the tennis court. In fact, romance helps inspire on-court triumph over adversity in Wimbledon (2004) and 16-Love (2012).

Meanwhile, no racket is needed as Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) and Linus (Humphrey Bogart) share a romantic dance, to the sounds of Harry Warren’s Shadow Waltz, on an in-door tennis court in Sabrina (1954). Before Linus enters, Sabrina, in her dazzling gown, takes a moment to float around the court and sit on the umpire’s chair. She has gone from chauffeur’s daughter to a bewitching figure of class and longing.

That being said, there is not always love and laughter on the tennis court. In Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), we watch a VHS tape of Richie (Luke Wilson) throwing away the Championship tennis match against Mr Ghandi because of a recent heart-break.

Dysfunctional family dynamics manifest during a game of doubles in the opening scene of The Squid and the Whale (2005). The on-court tensions between Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) draw the lines for the rest of the film – no fair play in this terminally out-of-synch family.

A game of doubles tennis marks the beginning, rather than the end, of a romance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). After playing on opposing sides, Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) engage in iconically awkward small talk which eventually results in a glass of wine and some flirting.

Speaking of Allen, his 2005 film Match Point opens by comparing the luck of a tennis ball going over the net to luck in life. In this case, the ball has clearly landed on the wrong side of the net, as the film ends with murder and despair.

Tennis and horror cross paths as a growingly insane Jack (Jack Nicholson) throws a tennis ball against the wall, creating a thunderous sound, in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). A tennis ball later mysteriously rolls up to Danny, who is playing with his toys on the iconic patterned carpet.

On a similarly ambiguous note, Thomas (David Hemmings) witnesses a troupe of mimes performing a tennis match in the closing moments of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Thomas eventually joins in with the game as the appearing sound of ball on racket suggests it has become ‘real’ to him.

Of course, there are films, like the upcoming Borg vs McEnroe, that are sports-driven and focus more on those involved in tennis on a professional level. Whether it be dramas like Spring Fever (1982), Little Mo (1978), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful or documentaries like Unstrung (2007), Unmatched (2010) and The White Game (1968).

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Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock references tennis in his films Stranger on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), and, more understatedly, in Rebecca (1940) and Rope (1948). I imagine the great director – and master of suspense – had appreciation for the on-edge tension a good match of tennis can create.

Tennis is a sport of elegance, poise and preciseness that, when out of control and wayward, can provide humour or signify something is amiss. The connotations the sport brings with it (leisure, prestige and properness) and the way they can be subverted have made it a useful tool for big-screen moments.

With all that said, we have two tennis films to look forward to, starting this Friday (September 22) with the release of Borg vs McEnroe.

Let us hope they are both aces.

What is your favourite tennis related movie moment? Comment below

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