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With Break Point, Netflix forgets that tennis is also poetry

Break Point reduces tennis to a set of basic storylines about underdogs and athleticism, while leaving out the sport’s tremendous lyricism

An infuriated Nick Kyrgios breaks his racket at the Australian Open 2022.

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Tennis is beautiful. Grace and power, athleticism and attrition, creativity and elegance, all highlighted by how instantly—given the way a fluorescent green ball falls inside or outside a white line—it can turn. It is anyone’s game. Netflix sensation Formula 1: Drive To Survive highlights young millionaires doing their best to get into the top teams, because only the best machinery is actually capable of winning, but the greatest tennis player in the world and the 150th seed play with basically the same racket. One might wear a snazzier wristwatch, certainly, but when on court, it’s a prizefight.

The turmoil within tennis—where unseeded players come out of nowhere to win tournaments—is obviously compelling for slick documentarians James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin, who made Formula One popular in the US and beyond traditional motorsport audiences by focusing on (then exaggerating and then, finally and inevitably, manufacturing) rivalries and conflicts, underdog stories, myths of champions and challengers. Break Point (Netflix) starts out with a great hook: With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal injured and on their way out, and anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic denied visas to travel and compete, the door is open for new blood. Whose time is now?

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The new series flies by fast as a power serve but it’s a struggle for anybody who loves the sport: It explains rules of play with rudimentary simplicity and, in its haste to package highlights, it never stays on the matches long enough. We go from dramatic moment to dramatic moment, underscored by voice-overs about struggles and mental toughness. The F1 series eventually became cartoonishly sensational but remains extraordinarily well-produced, allowing us to watch F1 cars in 4K resolution for the first time. This one is edited so hyperactively, from so many angles, that the actual games never look stunning.

I understand that Break Point is a format, not an original idea—it isn’t even an original title for a tennis documentary, given the rather absorbing Break Point (Zee5) miniseries about Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi—but the Netflix documentary does too little even when the material is potentially dynamite. It starts with the Australian Open 2022, where Djokovic was not only excluded from the tournament but was briefly held in an Australian detention centre because of his refusal to get vaccinated. For a second, the docuseries gives us an Australian Open organiser talking about how the authorities “are making a decision this morning”, and that idea is powerfully poetic: The government role-playing as line umpire in order to decide whether the world’s greatest tennis player is in or out. It moves on within seconds.

That may be the biggest problem: Break Point reduces the enthralling sport of tennis to a set of basic storylines about underdogs and athleticism, while leaving out the sport’s tremendous lyricism. The greatest tennis film of all time—arguably even the finest sports documentary feature film of them all— is Julien Faraut’s 2018 masterstroke In The Realm Of Perfection, which focuses single-mindedly on John McEnroe at the 1984 French Open.

Working from reels of archival 16mm footage shot by Gil de Kermadec at the event, Faraut assembles something magnificent, something that has insight—we learn that actor Tom Hulce based his portrayal of Mozart in the film Amadeus on McEnroe, for instance—as well as the swagger befitting its enfant terrible subject: I may never forget the shots of McEnroe serving, slowed down completely, with Sonic Youth amplifying each lob and throb. We see McEnroe lose his temper on the court, we understand why he loses it, we cringe in embarrassment for him, we find ourselves mesmerised, and, as in the moments I mentioned, we watch him amplify the heat like only a god can. It’s glorious.

Break Point’s answer to that lies in the first episode, featuring the mercurial Nick Kyrgios: One of the few players to have beaten Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, he loves a loud crowd while he’s on top. Whenever he begins to lose, however, umpires get abused and rackets become endangered. Kyrgios is all personality and defiance—he routinely hits shots back from between his legs, taunting opponents—and it’s good to see him kick back with the girlfriend he met online, who promises “he isn’t as crazy”.

This snarling champion-in-waiting was 19 when he beat Nadal yet could never scale the expected peaks. He now plays part-time, for 10-11 weeks a year, ranked No.115 in the world. He will not, alas, be playing this year's Australian Open because of injury. Kyrgios is a smashing subject, given this level of backstage and in-game access, but Break Point—eager to create characters but not as eager to truly explore them—appears content merely to label him (the first episode is called ‘The Maverick’) instead of really getting under his skin. The show packages young contenders as generic underdogs and almost-rans. With its eagerness to love and serve all demographics, the Netflix series offers no bite.

Watching the five episodes of this first season, I kept wishing Break Point would zoom in harder and hold its gaze: A documentary on Kyrgios, or even on Nadal—a white whale for younger players seeking to dethrone the legend —would be sublime. Instead, we have serves and vollies edited too fast without true sporting interest: We see Kyrgios arguing about his serve touching the net but we aren’t shown whether it actually did. Earlier, we see Kyrgios scream “He doesn’t want it” across the court, emphasising that his opponent does not want the point as hungrily as he does. We watch him scream but, as is frequent with this show, we don’t see the point.

Streaming tip of the week

The Malayalam crime comedy Mukundan Unni Associates (Disney+ Hotstar) is a highly engaging film about unscrupulous lawyers. Directed by Abhinav Sunder Nayak, the film is wholly amoral yet so delightfully fiendish you can’t help but admire the wickedness.

Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.

@rajasen

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