Despite 20 years of trying, I have never quite cracked how to properly evangelize for tennis. Perhaps it is because I take its beauty for granted, along with the way it feels ready-made for high stakes narrative drama. Tennis is a sport made up of individuals, all of whom have their own style and personality, duking it out for prize money and glory, demonstrating breathtaking athleticism and artistry. Really, who could ask for anything more?
But, at least in the United States, tennis faces serious obstacles as it goes searching for new fans. The basic rules of the game—particularly the rules around how the game is scored—are complicated and difficult to explain. There are terms of art out the wazoo. The tennis “season” is 11 months long, and the vast majority of tournaments are not shown on basic cable. Outside of the four grand slams and most of the Masters 1000 tournaments, you can’t even be sure a player you like will be playing in a given tournament. Three of the grand slams take place on other continents, and many of their matches air live at hours unwatchable for all but already-diehard fans. Then there are the players themselves, who are media trained from a young age, give dozens of press conferences a year, and play a sport with such intense rules of decorum that it can often be difficult to glimpse the humanity underneath their clench-jawed facades .
Netflix’s new documentary series Break Point attempts to break through these barriers, focusing on a group of top tennis players over the course of the 2022 season, showing the human dramas that lurk behind their tournament results. While the show is at times successful in showing us what the tennis life is really like, the series often feels hemmed in by convention, and neglects the actual playing of the sport, which remains the most interesting and dramatic thing about it.
According to a recent interview with Esquire, creators James Gay-Reese and Paul Martin wanted Break Point to explore the more human sides of the sport that casual viewers rarely get to see. “People see tennis as this genteel game,” Martin said, “It’s dirty, tennis, and it’s hard. We sat down and we did probably 25 player interviews at the Australian Open last year. And every single one of them that we did, James and I came out of them and were like, ‘I don’t know why they do it. I genuinely don’t know what the upside is. Because that looks like torture.’ “
Tennis players give up any semblance of a meaningful, stable childhood or early adult life. They are freelancers, living, supporting their teams, and saving for their post-retirement lives entirely off of tour winnings and endorsement deals. The match play itself is physically, emotionally, and psychologically grueling, and players lose far more tournaments in a year than they win. On the men’s side, the dominance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer—a dominance only now starting to wane after nearly 20 years—has meant that the upper echelons of the sport were all but closed off to multiple generations of players. On the women’s side, the depth and variety of talent makes even early round matches in tournaments into fraught, risky affairs. The players navigating these challenges are, for the most part, very young. The oldest player covered in Break Point is Ajla Tomljanovic, who is 28. The youngest, Felix Auger Aliassime, is 21. I don’t know what you were doing at 21, but I was mostly getting high and directing plays with my friends. Auger Aliassime sees his friends and family back in Montreal so rarely that, in Break Point‘s fifth episode, his team brings a few dozen of them to his practice on his birthday. When they show up, a clearly moved Auger Aliassime gives them a speech of gratitude that also makes it clear he will have no time to hang out with them.
The show’s humanism, its insistence on seeing the players as people rather than symbols, is its strongest asset. Within a few minutes, Break Point can clue us into Nick Kyrgios’s Jekyll and Hyde transformation into a raging egomaniac on court, Taylor Fritz’s stubbornness, Paula Bedosa’s anxiety and depression, Ajla Tomjanovic’s niceness that can at times translate to passivity on court, and Maria Sakkari’s self-defeating perfectionism. Even less tormented players like Matteo Berretini, Casper Ruud, and Ons Jabeur emerge feeling like real people. Interviews with the players’ coaches and physios fill out our understanding of their day-to-day lives, and the issues they combat on and off the court. The stakes of each tournament—and each match—are clearly laid out, particularly thanks to the efforts of hall of famer Andy Roddick and WTA Insider’s Courtney Nguyen, who serve as talking heads. Show runner Kari Lia has a particular eye for the meaningful wordless moment. Watching Casper Ruud meticulously don his headband prior to his French Open final against Rafael Nadal reveals far more about his use of ritual to calm his nerves than a quote ever could.
But once we get to the actual playing of the matches, something goes haywire. Break Point feels almost afraid to show us the sport it is about. The glory of tennis, its beauty and drama, can be found in the construction of points, the way players wrestle advantage away from their opponents, overpower them, or manipulate them into an unwinnable position in the literal blink of an eye. It is within the points that individual players reveal themselves, as surely as a classical pianist playing Bach. Some matches can even turn on a single point, as momentum shifts permanently from one player to another. The best nonfiction about tennis recognizes this. John McPhee’s masterful book Levels of the Game for example, tells us a great deal about the history of racing in the late ’60s, the game’s transition from amateur to professional, Arthur Ashe’s biography, and more. But it does all this through a play-by-play of one match, as the players narrate to McPhee their thought process on point after point after point.
Break Point only gives us this inside look at a player’s strategic thought process a few times over its first five episodes. For the most part, it instead relies on close-ups of players striking the ball, as majestic as they are repetitive, while dramatic music gooses the stakes. Unimportant matches are at times given real estate that could go to exploring pivotal ones in depth. The drawbacks of this approach are particularly visible in Episode 3, which tells the story of an injured Taylor Fritz’s unlikely victory over an even more injured Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells. The championship match ended in a nail-biter of a tiebreak, particularly in its final three minutes, as the margins between victory and defeat for both men narrowed to the microscopic. Almost none of this makes it to the screen Break Pointwhich chops the play up into incoherence in order to focus on Fritz’s final serve.
Some of this is almost certainly due to the attempt by Gay-Reese and Martin to replicate the success of their hit show Formula 1: Drive to Survive. Break Point borrows much from the successful, er, formula of that show in ways both good and bad. It has its predecessor’s propulsive energy and sense of human drama, but it also has its artificiality. I could not shake the feeling while watching it that many of the conversations were staged; why else would Felix Auger Aliassime tell his long-time coaching team about his childhood competitiveness with his sister? And the use of fake newscaster voiceover to bridge narrative gaps and set the scene for each match grows maddening as the season progresses. Break Point has incredible access, and his team knows how to tell a slick, compelling story, but the show needs to learn what all great tennis coaches know: when to step back and trust the player, and the sport, to get the job done.