Tennis Is Big at U.S. Open, but Not on Screen


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David Walton, left, and Jeremy Sisto in “Break Point,” in theaters in September.

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Broad Green Pictures

Hollywood has often looked to sports for inspiration. Be it the never-say-die underdogs in “Hoosiers” and “Rocky,” the championship pedigrees of “Ali” and “Remember the Titans” or the ragtag madness of “Slap Shot” and “Major League,” practically every sport has enjoyed its indelible moment on the big screen.

Except for tennis, a sport still waiting for its close-up. “There should be much more good movies about tennis,” said Agnieszka Radwanska, the Polish player who was a semifinalist at Wimbledon in July and who will be playing for the ninth year at the United States Open, which starts in Queens on Monday. “But there’s not. I’m surprised by that.”

It’s not as if tennis is an obscure sport: The Tennis Industry Association says 18 million Americans played it last year, and millions of television viewers watch Grand Slam tournaments like the Open (though the numbers pale in comparison with those for football and basketball). Yet the movies are scarce. Sure, there’s “Strangers on a Train,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller in which Farley Granger played a professional tennis star. But the sport was tangential to the plot, much as it has been for more recent films featuring tennis players like “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “Match Point,” from 2005.

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Kirsten Dunst in “Wimbledon.”

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Laurie Sparham/Universal Studios

Perhaps the only serious effort in this century to portray pro tennis on the big screen was “Wimbledon” (2004), a romantic comedy starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany set against the backdrop of the sport’s most famous tournament.

But “Wimbledon” came and went, with audience antipathy mostly shared by the tennis world.

“There were a few things in the movie that don’t really make sense as a tennis professional,” said Tommy Haas, the German-born player who will be in his 17th Open this year. “It’s very hard as a tennis player to relate to the transformation when actors are trying to play tennis. Unfortunately, it looks awkward. You just don’t buy it. You become a real critic.”

Mr. Haas isn’t alone among tennis pros in his opinion. “I think it was a story between some girl and a guy who play sports,” Ms. Radwanska said. “I think tennis was not the main thing there.”

After the lackluster performance of “Wimbledon” among critics and at the box office, and probably in part because of it, Hollywood shied away from tennis while continuing to turn out movies featuring other sports.

Now, though, that coldness toward tennis could be thawing.

It started with “7 Days in Hell,” the HBO mockumentary that had its premiere in July, inspired by the 2010 Wimbledon match between the American John Isner and the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut that lasted more than 11 hours played over three days. Despite cameos from Serena Williams and John McEnroe, players interviewed admitted to seeing little or none of that comedy. But at least one avid tennis fan in Hollywood has taken it upon himself to bring a heartfelt tennis movie to the screen.

“I always played with friends who played at a similar level,” said Jeremy Sisto, an actor who was a regular on “Law & Order” and “Six Feet Under.” “That’s how we started the conversation about why tennis has not had a space in the great movie index.”

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Emily Mortimer and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Woody Allen’s “Match Point.”

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Clive Coote/DreamWorks

The result of those conversations is the comedy “Break Point.” Mr. Sisto produced and wrote the film with a fellow tennis fan, Gene Hong. He also trained for his starring role as Jimmy Price, a former tennis prodigy who partners with his estranged brother, Darren (played by David Walton), for a prestigious local doubles tournament. The film also features the Oscar winner J. K. Simmons, Amy Smart and Adam DeVine; it’s available on demand before its theatrical release on Sept. 4.

Mr. Sisto acknowledged that a movie about doubles tennis was easier to make, with the interactions between partners. But he said he believed a successful film about the singles game was possible.

“I think being a singles tennis player is totally badass,” Mr. Sisto said. “Their inner strength — if it’s not the most difficult game to have a career in, it’s one of them. There is a singles movie that could be made that could be great. I think that is much more dark, more like ‘Black Swan,’ a David O. Russell-type of film, because it’s a very internal game.”

Those making a living by playing tennis don’t quite have Mr. Sisto’s filmmaking vision. But it’s clear that they’re awaiting a proper portrayal of their sport on the big screen, with one particular actor in mind.

“I think Jake Gyllenhaal could totally pull it off,” said Alison Riske, an American who is planning to play in her fourth U.S. Open this year. “He’s a little tiny maybe for a tennis player, but I think he’s pretty versatile as an actor.”

She isn’t alone in her assessment of Mr. Gyllenhaal as a potential leading man.

“I heard Jake Gyllenhaal say he spent six months learning how to box before he did that movie ‘Southpaw,’ ” said Tim Smyczek, an American who will also be playing at the Open this week. “Something similar would be required for a movie to be made about tennis. The actors in ‘Wimbledon’ probably didn’t spend six months seriously training for tennis.”

Even with the release of “Break Point” and “7 Days in Hell,” no one is expecting a sudden tennis renaissance in Hollywood. Still, there appears to be an interest in tennis movies, particularly among those who have dedicated their lives to a sport that doesn’t lack inspiring stories.

“You would think there would be a movie about Arthur Ashe, what kind of humanitarian he was,” Mr. Haas said of the tennis great whose name adorns the stadium where the biggest matches of the U.S. Open will be played. “He wins Wimbledon, he becomes the Davis Cup head coach, he fights AIDS. It’s crazy how many amazing moments he had in his life. You’d think an actor could play that role in an amazing movie that I’m still hoping will happen soon.”

For his part, Mr. Haas voiced his willingness to lend his expertise to such a film. As far as finding the right actor, he suggests perhaps looking on the court rather than off it. “Maybe some tennis player needs to make a second career,” he said. “I know there are a couple of guys who would love to see themselves on the big screen.”

Correction: August 27, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the character played by Farley Granger in “Strangers on a Train” (1951). Guy Haines is a professional tennis player, not an amateur.



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