Netflix came to tennis, but doesn’t know what story to tell
When news began to circulate in 2021 that tennis would be portrayed in depth on Netflix, many rubbed their hands together. The precedent of “Drive to Survive”, an engaging immersion into the world of Formula 1, allowed for excitement. In 2023, when the first five episodes of “Break Point” hit the screens, disappointment struck many. The series offers attractive images and rests on an undoubtedly privileged access to several stars of the tour, but it is a product with a huge problem: it doesn’t really know what it wants to tell.
It doesn’t know, doesn’t want to or can’t. It would be necessary to know the contract signed, the agreements and limitations for part of tennis to allow itself this moderate journey into its interior. What we do know is what we see: everything indicates that “Break Point” was never intended to tell what happens in tennis, but to show some tennis players. It may seem the same, but it is not. And the former is much more interesting than the latter, because tennis players come and go, but tennis and its professional tour remain. There is history there, a rich past that does not exist in “Break Point”.
The constant use of muffled sound and close-up images, sometimes slowed down, turn the real into the unreal. It is a paradox in a work that is meant to be a documentary, but “Break Point” flows at many moments covered by a disconcerting patina of unreality.
The dramatisations with the protagonists don’t work well either, in general, although there are exceptions.
The first chapter, dedicated to the Australian Nick Kyrgios, leads to a certain exhaustion for the viewer. Yes, it is known that Kyrgios is a “bad boy”, yes, it is known that he breaks rackets, yes, it is known that he is foul-mouthed and also that he is enormously talented racquet in hand.
But what is not known is why he is what he is, why Kyrgios is the way he is. The chapter navigates a diffuse anger and dissatisfaction with a lot of imagery and little substance. The tennis player’s relationship with his girlfriend brings humanity, that’s true, perhaps too much, when it comes to the moment when the Aussie streams his urine test.
Only at the end, when Kyrgios talks about how much the loneliness of the tour bothers him, is his psychology and way of thinking a little better understood, matters that are an enigma in most of the chapter.
As Belgian David Goffin put it bluntly days ago at the Australian Open: “I haven’t seen it yet. I’m not really interested in seeing Kyrgios hanging out with his girlfriend. This series is not interesting for the players or the people who live the tennis tour”.
There are some small finds and genuine moments, such as Matteo Berrettini’s family grating Parmesan cheese in Rome, and Ons Jabeur’s mother cooking with the player in Tunisia. There is there, in these two stars linked to the Mediterranean, the humanity and authenticity that is missing in many of the other chapters, and not precisely through the fault of those portrayed.
As for the players portrayed, “Break Point” is profoundly European and North American, with the addition of Jabeur and Kyrgios. Added to that, the commentators and pundits called in are also from the northern hemisphere. Andy Roddick, Chris Evert, Paul Annacone and Maria Sharapova further shape a microcosm of the United States.
“Break Point” is thus a documentary about tennis that is smaller than tennis, a documentary that leaves a jibarised sense of the sport it portrays. The images are very good, but mostly cold. There is no spontaneity in most of the interviews, no moments “stolen” from the protagonists. There is no journalism, and probably never was meant to be.
One example is the case of Novak Djokovic, banned in January 2022 from Australia. What happened is told very quickly, but only as an obligatory quick procedure to move on to something else. There are no questions, no questioning, no vibrancy.
“Break Point” is, above all, a very careful staging. It may be very pleasing on first impact, but it is a dish that after two mouthfuls reveals that it has no taste. No salt, no pepper. Just a few sweets.
The Australian Open feels like an operating theatre, not a tournament. It lacks warmth, the real atmosphere of tournaments that at “Break Point” don’t feel like tournaments. The tournaments, in many moments, are not recognisable. Roland Garros, in the final chapter, is the one that most resembles itself.
Chris Evert’s comment on Ajla Tomljanovic is interesting (“I think she lacks being bad”), but there are few moments like that.
In contrast, the dialogue in a hotel room between the Australian and Berrettini, who was his boyfriend by then, exhibits the main flaw of Break Point, the stiltedness of its style.
Asking two players to dramatise a banal conversation (romance or horror films) inevitably leads to this. Again, in the absence of journalism, spontaneity is absent and the staging, however forced, is flawed.
During an interview that is part of the documentary, Berrettini leaves an interesting sentence for its depth: “I feel nervous, but I try to be nervous. It’s a good thing. It’s always about the balance between will and fear. If there is no fear, there is no will”.
And he talks about what it means for him to face Rafael Nadal, to whom he lost in the semi-finals of Australia 2022: “I don’t have the right attitude, I’m too happy to be there.”
Berrettini, like Norwegian Casper Ruud, had Nadal posters in his room. Kyrgios certainly didn’t, but that didn’t stop the Aussie from acknowledging the Spaniard’s size: “Nadal is like a God.”
The Greek Maria Sakkari reveals humanity, and some of the things her coach says and does are interesting. The same goes for the problems of depression explained by the Spaniard Paula Badosa.
In another chapter, the American Taylor Fritz takes centre stage. At times it seems that the viewer will get close to his soul, but then “Break Point” becomes “Break Point” again and resolves everything with incessant close-ups and game actions.
Probably the only incisive and controversial moment the documentary allows itself is with Toni Nadal and the Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. There is harsh criticism of Rafael Nadal’s uncle’s decision not to advise his player, because what he really wants is for his nephew to win. Criticism on social media and acidic comments from French coach Patrick Mouratoglou generate the illusion that “Break Point” finally decided to show how the tour really works.
It’s the same when Ruud and his father fight with the people in charge of controlling the state of the practice courts at Roland Garros. Did “Break Point” decide to be incisive?
No, it’s just a moment, an illusion. Because that’s what tennis is all about, it’s a permanent conflict, conflicts of interest, too. But “Break Point” prefers to show other things, although the strange thing is that it’s still not clear what. There are still five chapters to go, but there is one thing that cannot be changed: the name. Of all the possible platitudes, “Break Point” is the undisputed gold medal.