You wait forever for a tennis documentary and then three come along at once. Suddenly, it seems, tennis is sexy as film-makers discover that the sport is more than just whacking balls across the net and that some of its greatest players have stories of epic proportions – the subjects covered in these films include race, misogyny, huge wealth, violent deaths and controlling parents.
Two of them – Andy Murray: The Man Behind the Racquet and Venus and Serena – are fly-on-the-wall documentaries, following stars who are still playing at the highest level in the sport, while the third, The Battle of the Sexes, marks the 40th anniversary of the controversial tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973.
Film-makers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major followed the Williams sisters throughout 2011, a year in which they battled illness and injury. Venus and Serena is a very revealing film – which may be why they failed to attend its premiere. Rumour has it they objected to the way their father Richard is portrayed.
The sisters’ first professional coach, Rick Macci, makes some disobliging remarks about him and there is shocking footage (previously unbroadcast) of Williams Snr angrily confronting a journalist interviewing the 14-year-old Venus. It is also revealed that the sisters discovered Richard’s first family of five boys only as adults, and that he saw their success as a way of raising his family out of poverty.
The film also deals honestly with the subject of race – despite the sisters’ commercial endorsements and successful non-tennis careers in fashion and acting, many in the sport believe that if they were white, they would have been even more fêted – the drive-by shooting of their oldest sister Yetunde Price in 2003, and Serena’s occasional foul-mouthed outbursts at court officials, which she glibly, if charmingly, blames on “Taquanda”, one of her many personalities.
Psychologists would have a field day watching this film; Serena is described by an older sister as a “drama queen” while the more reserved Venus sometimes comes across as being overshadowed by her younger sister and, of course, professional rival. Also in the mix is the ongoing war of words between their divorced parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, much of it played out here.
But Venus and Serena also has some lighter moments, most of them due to slyly humorous editing, such as when Oracene, still miked, walks away after being interviewed at Wimbledon by a hapless British hack about female players grunting on court. “Goddamn,” she mutters under her breath, “wondering about a stupid grunt.” The sisters’ minor obsession with karaoke (they are hopeless at it) raises a few laughs too.
Andy Murray must hope that his humorous side – which still passes by those who wrongly describe him as dour – comes across in the BBC’s The Man Behind the Racquet. Director Jo McCusker followed the Scot in 2012, during which he reached his first Wimbledon final, won gold at the Olympics and then his first grand slam title at the US Open.
Her film offers a glimpse of a shy and private man, whom she describes as “unflashy” and “ordinary”, doesn’t drink alcohol and likes nothing more exciting than walking the dogs with his partner, Kim Sears. It also shows the importance of the large support group, the boredom of constant travel (leavened in Murray’s case by hours spent on PlayStation) and the almost superhuman dedication of repetitive training required to stay at the top in the modern game.
It all seems a long way from 1973, when Billie Jean King co-founded the Women’s Tennis Association and began her long fight for equal pay in tennis. The Battle of the Sexes tells that story by focusing on the infamous match against self-proclaimed male chauvinist Riggs, which she won resoundingly amid the hype and his outrageous claims that women shouldn’t be seen on court.
It’s perhaps inevitable that King is lionised in a film of which she is executive producer, but it’s informative and frequently very funny, not least in the archive material of men talking about women in a way that sounds preposterous to us now. We really have come a long way baby.
Andy Murray: The Man Behind the Racquet is on BBC1 on 23 June; The Battle of the Sexes and Venus and Serena are released on 28 June
Tennis on the Silver Screen
Match Point (2005)
Woody Allen, a keen tennis fan, double-faulted with this turkey. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a club pro, Scarlett Johansson and Emily Mortimer are the other two sides of a love triangle – and all are noticeably more wooden than their rackets. But let’s not forget that Allen’s greatest film, Annie Hall, started with a mixed doubles match where his and Diane Keaton’s characters first meet.
Half-decent racket romance starring Paul Bettany as a troubled player who finds professional glory and personal redemption through the love of a good woman, played by Kirsten Dunst. The All England Club allowed the film-makers to shoot the climactic scenes on Centre Court after the 2003 Championships had concluded and several stars, including Chris Evert and John McEnroe, appear as themselves.
Nobody’s Perfect (1989)
Cross-dressing college “comedy” in which freshman Stephen (Chad Lowe) seeks to wow Shelly (Gail O’Grady), star of the varsity team and the girl he’s in love with but who doesn’t know he exists. So Stephen becomes Stephanie as he attempts to get close to her by joining the team. Insert your own joke about new balls here.