Being we’re in the midst of Wimbledon’s prestigious and ostensibly elegant fortnight, let’s take a look back at some of the memorable films that deal with the high-brow as well as the ultra-competitive world of professional tennis. Now, keep in mind, the pool of great, or even so-so tennis movies is so slim, we have our work cut out for us!

Borg vs McEnroe

Borg vs McEnroe is a feature film about the greatest rivalry in tennis history: the unflappable machine Bjorn Borg versus the egocentric artist John McEnroe—with Shia LaBeouf playing the great and mercurial Johnny Mac? “You cannot be serious!” Certainly, the concept is a lot to live up to, but the actors, producers, and director definitely give it their level best; with decidedly mixed results. The film focuses primarily on the lead up to and the epic battle of the 1980 Wimbledon men’s singles final considered by many to be the greatest match of all time. Actually, the Federer-Nadal 2008 championship match on the hallowed grass of London, England takes the trophy as the best ever in this writer’s mind. But regardless, the Borg-Mac match is certainly unsurpassed in terms of contrasting styles, pop-culture relevance, and uncanny shotmaking. It was also played in the era of wooden rackets which gives it an air of timelessness and historical elegance. 

The film does yeoman’s work in portraying Borg and McEnroe’s contrasting talents and their unique approach to the gentleman’s game. The details and specifics of Borg’s unique discipline and unforgiving training techniques are overwhelming and somewhat daunting, as it seems like no sane person could endure such a level of dedication and focus. As well, Sverrir Gudnason looks so much like the real Bjorn Borg, it’s hard to believe they’re not related. As an interesting side note, Borg’s biological son, Leo, plays young Bjorn in this dramatic period piece. 

In contrast, McEnroe’s instinctual, brash talent and his sloppy, unconventional style is equally captivating in its execution, and the hot mess that is John McEnroe is portrayed quite admirably by the controversial and volatile performance artist, freestyle rapper, and actor, Shia LaBeouf. Being he had never played tennis before taking on the role of John McEnroe, LaBeouf struggles to bring that essential authenticity to the actual scenes of fierce battle on center court Wimbledon. And the action scenes are cut, quite transparently, to mask the actors’ deficiencies as it pertains to high-level professional tennis competition. Regardless, Borg vs McEnroe is an intriguing and in-depth character study of two athletes who captured the world’s collective imagination, and their legend and stature live on to this very day. 

Wimbledon

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is the rom-com melodrama Wimbledon. Starring two fine actors, Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, Melancholia) and Paul Bettany, (Gangster No. 1, Master and Commander), Wimbledon seeks to humanize the take-no-prisoners reality of professional sports by injecting romance and camaraderie into the savagery of high-stakes competition. The story follows London’s hometown hero Peter Colt, who’s decided to end his career as his ranking has dropped significantly over the past few years. But the night before his opening match at Wimbledon he meets up-and-coming women’s superstar Lizzy Bradbury.

The movie essentially follows the two players’ blossoming romance while tracking their progress in the world’s greatest tournament—aside from the U.S. Open, that is! Kirsten Dunst is typically sassy, cute, and effervescent, but she is thoroughly unconvincing as a high-level tennis professional. Although it seems this is not the first time she’s picked up a racket, Kirsten still seems like a B or C-level club player; certainly not a contender who could one day capture the world’s number-one ranking. Bettany seems to demonstrate a bit more prowess with his forehand, backhand, net game, and serve; however, none of the tennis scenes appear at all convincing or even compelling. This is probably not the most important element of a witty, somewhat harmless rom-com, but the audience needs to experience the suspension of disbelief for the gestalt of the film to work. 

However, the story of a past-his-prime underdog, inspired by love to reach the heights of the tennis world is compelling enough for even the most ardent anti-chick flick stalwarts. With incisive and whimsical banter and uplifting themes of support and true friendship, Wimbledon might just be a solid date-night movie selection for those weary of all kinds of drama.

Match Point

2005’s Match Point will never be confused with a true tennis drama or comedy; but nevertheless, the ultimate racket sport is a critical element in this story of murder, mystery, betrayal, and obsession. 

Former high-ranked touring tennis pro Chris Wilton (dead-eyed, yet gorgeous Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) struggles to maintain a meager existence as a teaching pro at the posh London Country Club. Wilton has great ambition and a taste for the finer things in life, but he’s stuck teaching the blue-haired tennis crowd as well as neophyte ingenues of the privileged class. Chris wants a piece of that action but knows he’ll never get there by toiling away his hours teaching private lessons and organizing club tournaments. So, Wilton ends up marrying sweet, of-the-manor-born Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and takes a job in her father’s corporate office. The former star is introduced to a life of wealth and privilege, but he can’t seem to shake his infatuation and unmitigated lust for the expat wannabe actress Nola Rice (Scarlett Johannson). Although there are no great tennis matches or tournament play in this thriller, Match Point uses a good bit of tennis in the mise en scene, as well as with the Victorian clothes and distinctive style of hidebound tennis gear. 

Tennis itself is definitely a peripheral element in this dark tale, but it is an element that feels real and serves to propel the story’s narrative ever onward. 

How about you? In honor of Wimbledon, any good tennis movies to recommend?

 

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