I’m not a huge sports nut. I’m what could be described as selectively passionate. I could care less about football. European or American. I couldn’t tell you when the NBA season is. But there are a couple of sports and a few teams I follow and cheer with vigor. University of Kansas Men’s Basketball (aka the Jayhawks, hence my twitter moniker @IrishJayhawk66), the Kansas City Royals in the MLB, and tennis. Anything and anyone tennis. It’s the only sport I can honestly say I enjoy playing it as much as I do watching it.
And for a film fanatic, I look for any tennis references on the big screen, classic or modern. It’s not a common theme, to be certain. Almost rare, actually. So I’m grateful for Hitchcock’s apparent love for the game. But that’s for another discussion. There is one film that does a marvelous job of tackling the sport of tennis head-on and it’s wrapped up in a nice film with a fine cast, a bit schmaltzy in formula but manages to churn out a cute little RomCom. While clearly a romantic comedy, it stays on the main theme of tennis rather adeptly, and balances subplots and a variety of supporting characters to keep it interesting.
Paul Bettany, that charming tall, and slim Brit that you may know as the voice in Tony Stark’s head for you Marvel fans, plays our main character Peter Colt. Once ranked 11th in the world is now 119th, and owner of a few cool champion titles, but never quite made it TRULY big time, Peter finds himself dragging his tired game off to his last Wimbledon where he intends to announce his retirement as a pro. The future of grudgingly charming the catty, mature ladies of leisure in tennis skirts at the local tennis club as their new Tennis Director awaits his fate.
His career path isn’t his only source of pessimism and trouble. Back home, his parents are constantly bickering and his brother is a rather weaselly fellow, portrayed by one of my favorite actors of this generation, James McAvoy. When he’s not at home in his cycling gear watching porn he’s at the bookie because he prefers to bet against and profit from his brother’s loses at every turn. And because it’s cutie McAvoy, we don’t hate him, we simply don’t trust him. Like you might with your own little brother.
But life isn’t a total downer for Peter. When he arrives at his hotel, there’s a room mix-up and he walks into a fresh-from-the-shower, naked Kirsten Dunst as Lizzie. They meet again later on the practice courts. Sparks fly as a forward and frank Lizzie makes a play for the self-deprecating and charming Peter. I should warn you now that I’m not generally much of a fan of snaggle-toothed Dunst. Her performance is a bit flat or perhaps its my bias but despite that, I very much enjoy her character as the American tennis pro who knows what she wants and boldly and unapologetically goes after it.
At one point as Peter Colt is entering the third round of Wimbledon, he is challenged with facing his long-time practice partner and friend, Dieter (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Side note: I really liked Peter’s friendship with his practice partner who happens to be gay, as is another female player. But they do a good job of inclusion while not playing up these characters in some stereotypical, unnatural, over the top tone.
Lizzie advises him that he has to choose whether to play him like a friend or an opponent in a Grand Slam. “You practice together, you travel together, you practically live together. Do you really have what it takes to close out a friend in the third round of Wimbledon? Because that is killing. It’s a bullet to the heart. That’s what’s tough about this game. There’s a winner and there’s a loser. And tomorrow, one of you is going to be a loser.”Peter wins.
She prefers to keep their relationship casual and purely physical. Peter finds himself falling for her and it appears his unexpected successes on the court (he never expected to make it past the first round) may be a result of being inspired by his growing affections for Lizzy. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s dad aka her micromanaging coach, portrayed by Sam Neill sporting an American accent, approaches Peter to tell him to back off. He worries Peter will be a distraction.
Back at the hotel, Peter’s agent Ronnie (Jon Favreau) shows up out of the blue, after dropping Peter like a hot brick over a year ago, now that Peter’s winning. To make matters more complicated, Peter’s agent also represents several other players. Enter American tennis pro, Jake Hammond. He’s the sort of cocky, arrogant prick we love to hate. Plus he keeps trying to make moves on Lizzie that she’s been rebuffing before Peter was even in the picture. As a predictable formula would follow, a public confrontation is displayed at a party for the top players as a rejected Hammond insults Lizzie in front of Peter. Colt punches him to the ground and the two love birds escape the paparazzi as dad, left behind at the party, calls out after his daughter.
The two drive to Peter’s seaside hometown where he grew up to his flat. The flat looks like a place Peter rarely visits from all his years of traveling in tournaments across the world. However, his wanker of a brother Carl has made himself at home already, along with his tacky, low brow friends. Peter kicks them out but Carl sells out his brother yet again by leaking a photo and their secret whereabouts to the press, which leads to their romantic escape being cut short by Lizzie’s father’s unexpected visit.
Not being able to keep away, Peter sneaks into Lizzie’s room one night before a big match. She loses the next morning and is out of the tournament. Lizzie bitterly blames Peter for her defeat, “The only thing you fell in love with this week was winning…. Love means nothing in tennis. Zero. It only means you lose.” Sore loser, Lizzie.
After overcoming many obstacles, Peter has found himself facing Hammond in the finals. But does Peter have what it takes? He’s playing at his very best of his entire career, on what will be his last competitive match as a pro, and yet tennis seems to suddenly mean a great deal less to him than love from Lizzie.
That’s the interesting thing about the sport of tennis. It’s SUCH a mental game. I realize in every sport there’s the balance for the athlete of their own physicality and their confidence to win. But tennis is a game where you are almost more competitive with yourself than with your opponent. In team sports like basketball, football, etc, there’s more focus on the process of individuals coming together as a whole unit, like a collection of parts in a finely tuned machine. Not in tennis. A tennis player stands alone. Ace or choke, win or lose, the tennis player often finds themselves relying upon their own inner dialogue, with no coach nor cheerleaders on the sidelines.
This film does an excellent job of capturing that. We often see Peter having inner conflicts via inner dialogue as he stands at the baseline. And while I found this extremely pleasing to see all the references that only a tennis player and a tennis fan could fully appreciate, there’s plenty of entertainment served up for folks whose only tennis knowledge is, “that’s where that McEnroe fella that would yell a lot, right?” (And I was happy to see Johnny Mac, Chris Evert and Mary Carillo make cameos, too.)
There’s something to love here for everyone though, for fans of… tennis, British humor, romantic comedies (including a two week comet blazing across the sky is a metaphor of the fire of their romance) and frankly it’s just a sweet little story that even classic film fans can appreciate and should be your next guilty pleasure this summer.
*This post was my contribution to the Athletes In Film Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon A Screen and Wide Screen World, June 4-5th, 2016. Check out their blog sites for the full list of participants. Great reading to kick off this summer. I’ll end on a few images of other tennis moments and references captured via Hollywood…
[Old Hollywood had a love affair with tennis so why more films were not made about tennis is beyond me…]