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Mr. Movie: Tennis films

I don’t watch tennis any more. The Williams sisters are gone and the men all seem to need to buy a vowel. But tennis makes for good movies and I’ve selected the ones I like best.


My very favorite is Battle of the Sexes (2017). In the ’70s, the prizes for women tennis pros were roughly one-eighth of those for men. Some of the best female players pulled out of the professional league and started their own. Bobby Riggs, a journeyman professional and all-around braggart, kept trying to get Billy Jean King to play him. She finally agreed. Emma Stone plays King and Steve Carrell plays Riggs in this fairly accurate retelling of the story. King trains hard; Riggs relaxes. There is lots of hype before the match, which is nationally televised. King prevails to loud cheers. This match actually changed the landscape for women’s tennis. After that came the Williamses, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and a host of others. 


The 2013 film with the same name is a documentary, closer to the truth but not nearly as much fun.


King Richard (2021) is the biopic of the Williams family’s rise to tennis greatness. Will Smith is quite good as the father of the talented girls. An expert promoter and adequate coach, he pushes Venus and Serena beyond the limits of childhood and into champion status. He carefully guides their careers and is superb at picking the best way forward for his kids. He secures the best coaches and sponsors and both girls become adept professionals.


Borg vs. McEnroe (2017) is the true story of a legendary tennis rivalry. Swede Bjorn Borg (Sverirr Gudnason) is the three-time Wimbledon winner. A famously introspective introvert, he is never rattled on the court and is quietly the best player in the world. Enter the abrasive, bratty John McEnroe (Shia LaBoeuf), unafraid of any encounter and determined to be the best. His battles with umpires stoke his fame, and his trademark shout of “seriously” on calls he questions become his mantra. The two meet in the Wimbledon finals in 1980 in a wonderfully exciting match between two opposites.


Subject To Review (2019) is a 37-minute short produced by ESPN that outlines the history and usage of Hawkeye, a device that reviews calls in tennis matches. It is a fascinating look at how often line calls are missed in professional tennis and fans and players are now used to the device being utilized. Most other sports also use this technology. Baseball has toyed with having it called balls and strikes, but still relies on human observation.


One of my all-time favorite athletes, and people, is Arthur Ashe. Citizen Ashe (2021) is an excellent documentary detailing his rise to tennis greatness and his influence as a civil rights activist. He was usually the only Black player in tournaments and stoically braved catcalls and prejudice, both overt and stealthily applied. He is revered by tennis fans of all stripes now, but it wasn’t always that way. He earned his way to fame and acceptance.


All of these movies are fine for all ages.