Tennis may just have a problem on its hands.
Even very casual observers of tennis, over the past decade-plus, must have been ambiently aware of a certain set of facts: The dominance of Serena Williams on the women’s side, and of the triumvirate of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal among the men. With Williams and Federer now retired, and Djokovic and Nadal likely deep into the second half of their respective careers, a star-driven sport finds itself rapidly losing the figures who’d consumed all the oxygen for years.
That gives “Break Point” an opportunity. Netflix’s pleasingly watchable sports serial, from the same producing team behind “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” introduces a series of ultimately rootable figures who are relatively early in their careers. Die-hards and even regular tennis viewers may find it rudimentary — at one point, for instance, the basic rules of the game are explained to us — but those seeking a primer on who lies ahead and the pressures they face in trying to establish themselves would do well to check this out.
As to those challenges: One issue with the tennis media being dominated by major celebrities, after all, is their general reticence to let us deep inside their worlds. Here, aspirants with little to lose let us inside their hotel rooms, their pre-match prep, their moments of post-game exhilaration or despair. Standout figures, in the five episodes launching January 13, include Taylor Fritz, an ambitious Californian who urgently wants to win his home-state Indian Wells tournament, and Paula Badosa, a gifted Spaniard whose own hometown moment at the Madrid Open is occluded by her own mental-health struggles.
Challenges like the ones Badosa faces are presented with sensitivity and thought, bolstered by talking-head interviews with the likes of Maria Sharapova and Andy Roddick, retired superstars, testifying to the pressures of the court. This much hardly seems necessary — the footage is strong enough — and, if anything, “Break Point” can operate with a touch too much sensitivity to the players’ experiences. Nick Kyrgios, a self-styled tennis “bad boy,” gets a rootably sympathetic edit of his time at the 2022 Australian Open; this all happened before charges of asault against Kyrgios by an ex-girlfriend were made public later that year, which casts his bright and ultimately upbeat “Break Point” story in a different light.
This is one episode, though (the first one, but still); in the main, “Break Point” does a good job of balancing contradictory urges — showing us people living through high-stakes single-elimination tournaments both as athletes and as people who must find ways to kill the downtime. To the former, the filmmakers here have the great good luck of making television about a sport that’s very easy to render dramatic; well-chosen shots have each player covered looking like a potential next Williams, or next Federer. And to the latter, subjects seem chosen both for their willingness to grant access and their ability to forget the presence of cameras. One player’s anger and frustration at losing practice time due to sprinkles of rain sticks in memory not as diva-ish bad behavior but as the expression of total lack of control over their circumstances.
And tennis, when played well, is all about control! Which makes such an interesting counterpoint to the ragged, baggy hours spent in hotel rooms on laptops these athletes spend, stuck once again with their doubts and insecurities. “Break Point” makes a strong case for having cameras there to capture what thoughts play out in those moments, and helped convert a onetime serious watcher who hasn’t had time for the sport since Sharapova’s heyday into someone who will be seated for this year’s grand slams. For the filmmakers behind this project, that’s game, set and match.
Pictured above: Taylor Fritz. The first five episodes of “Break Point” will launch on Netflix on Friday, Jan. 13, with five more to follow in June 2023.