Sports

‘Break Point’ Is the Best Way to See the Full Psychodrama of Tennis

In the sixth episode of the Netflix docuseries “Break Point,” Ajla Tomljanovic, a journeywoman tennis player who has spent much of the last decade in the Top 100 of the world rankings, is shown splayed across an exercise mat in a drab training room after reaching the 2022 Wimbledon quarterfinals. Her father, Ratko, stretches out her hamstrings. She receives a congratulatory phone call from her sister and another from her idol-turned-mentor, the 18-time major champion Chris Evert, before Ratko announces that it’s time for the dreaded ice bath. “By the way,” Tomljanovic says at one point, “do we have a room?” Shortly after his daughter sealed her spot in the final eight of the world’s pre-eminent tennis tournament, Ratko was seen on booking.com, extending their stay in London.

This is not the stuff of your typical sports documentary, but it is the life of a professional tennis player. Circumnavigating the globe for much of the year with only a small circle of coaches, physiotherapists and perhaps a parent, they shoulder alone the bureaucratic irritations that, in other elite sports, might be outsourced to agents and managers. If at some tournaments they surprise even themselves by outlasting their hotel accommodations, most events will only harden them to the standard torments of the circuit, which reminds them weekly of their place in the pecking order. As Taylor Fritz, now the top-ranked American men’s player, remarks in one “Break Point” episode, “It’s tough to be happy in tennis, because every single week everyone loses but one person.” This is a sobering audit, coming from a player who wins considerably more than his approximately 2,000 peers on the tour.

“Break Point,” executive-produced by Paul Martin and the Oscar-winning filmmaker James Gay-Rees, arrived this year as a gift to tennis fans, for whom splashy, well-produced and readily accessible documentaries about the sport have been hard to come by. Tennis, today, finds itself in the crepuscular light of an era when at least five different players — the Williams sisters, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have surely deserved mini-series of their own. But the sport has never enjoyed its own “All or Nothing,” the all-access Amazon program that follows a different professional sports team each season, or the event-television status accorded to “The Last Dance,” the Netflix docuseries about Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, with its luxury suite of talking heads: Nas, Isiah Thomas, “former Chicago resident” Barack Obama. Perhaps this is because the narrative tropes of the genre tend toward triumphs and Gatorade showers, while the procedural and psychological realities of professional tennis lie elsewhere. The 10 episodes of “Break Point” render tennis unromantically: This is the rare sports doc whose primary subject is loss.

In Andre Agassi’s memorably frank memoir, “Open,” he describes the tennis calendar with subtle poetry, detailing “how we start the year on the other side of the world, at the Australian Open, and then just chase the sun.” This itinerary more or less dictates the structure of “Break Point,” which opens at the year’s first Grand Slam and closes at the year-end championships in November. At each tournament, the players it spotlights post impressive results — and then, typically, they lose, thwarted sometimes by the sport’s stubborn luminaries but more often by bouts of nerves or exhaustion. They find comfort where they can, juggling a soccer ball or lying back with a self-made R.&B. track in a hotel room. But many tears are shed, after which they redouble their commitments to work harder, be smarter, get hungrier. “You have to be cold to build a champion mind-set,” says the Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Those who watched Wimbledon this month might find, in all this, an instructive companion piece to live tennis. “Break Point” is frustratingly short on actual game play, shaving matches down to their rudiments in a way that understates the freakish tactical discipline required of players; viewers will not, for example, come away with any greater understanding of point construction than they will from having watched Djokovic pull his opponents out wide with progressively heavier forehands, only to wrong-foot them with a backhand up the line. They will, however, come to understand how intensely demoralizing it must be to stand across the net from him. In an episode following last year’s Wimbledon, we watch the talented but irascible Nick Kyrgios, as close as tennis has to its own Dennis Rodman, play Djokovic in the final. He gets off to a hot start and then, like so many before him, begins to wilt. “He’s calmer; you can’t rush him,” he says of Djokovic, in a voice-over the series aptly sets against footage of an exasperated Kyrgios admonishing the umpire, the crowd, even friends and family in his own box. These are athletes we’re accustomed to seeing at their steeliest or their most combustible; the matches in “Break Point” may be fresh in the memory of most tennis fans, but the series benefits greatly from its subjects’ clearer-headed reflections.

For all its pretensions to realism, “Break Point” is a shrewd, and perhaps doomed, attempt to fill the sport’s impending power vacuum. Kyrgios and Tsitsipas are among a handful of strivers it positions as the sport’s new stars, along with others like Casper Ruud, Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka. All, naturally, subjected themselves to Netflix’s cameras. This kind of access is increasingly crucial to sports documentaries, a fact that often results in work that’s unduly deferential to its subjects, as with “The Last Dance” and Michael Jordan.

Tennis, though, runs counter to this mandate. It is perhaps the sport most conducive to solipsism. Singles players perform alone. On-court coaching is generally prohibited, so there are no rousing speeches to inspire unlikely comebacks. The game’s essential psychodrama takes place within the mind — often in the 25 seconds allotted between points, or in the split seconds during which one must decide whether to go cross-court or down the line, to flatten the ball or welter it with spin. I can remember, as a junior-tennis also-ran, my coaches saying that once my eyes wandered to my opponent across the net, they knew I would lose. This might explain why tennis players so often resort to their index of obsessive tics, like hiking up their socks or adjusting their racket strings just so.

By the season’s end, we meet Tomljanovic again at the U.S. Open, where she earned the awkward distinction of sending Serena Williams into retirement. At the time, ESPN’s broadcast of the match yielded nearly five million viewers, making it the most-watched tennis telecast in the network’s history. This was Serena’s swan song, but “Break Point” depicts it from the perspective of our reluctant victor. Between the second and third sets, Tomljanovic shields her face with a sweat towel, as if to quiet the sound of 24,000 spectators rooting against her. In tennis, it seems, even winning can feel like a drag.

After the match, we find Tomljanovic cooling down on a stationary bike. Ratko, who has emerged as the show’s sole source of comedic relief, comes up from behind, embracing his daughter with a joke about her beating the greatest player of all time. “But why do I feel so conflicted?” she asks. There is no Gatorade bath, no confetti. To win the tournament, she still has four more matches to go.


Opening illustration: Source photographs from Netflix; Tim Clayton/Corbis, via Getty Images

Jake Nevins is a writer in Brooklyn and the digital editor at Interview Magazine. He has written about books, sports and pop culture for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and The Nation.

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