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Formula 1: Drive to Survive is one of my favorite oddball word-of-mouth Netflix success stories — an unscripted show that got no particular critical attention when it premiered in 2019, only to reliably pop up in casual conversations and unexpected contexts, almost always with a preamble resembling, “I wasn’t interested in Formula 1 racing before, but…”
That series, which has now aired four seasons, found traction beyond racing aficionados with its high-octane photography and intimate access to drivers who, in the course of any given race, would normally be masked enigmas driving serpentine courses in exotic locales. While much of the world is obviously obsessed with Formula One as a sport, the Drive to Survive team passed an array of barriers of entry when it came to capturing American interest, and did it with aplomb.
For their follow-up, producers Paul Martin and James Gay-Rees have set a seemingly “easier” task with the world of tennis — or maybe it just feels that way to me, since I’m barely a superficially curious Formula One viewer, while I’m an avid, if far from obsessive, tennis fan. Leaving aside global levels of popularity for the two sports, tennis is a competition in which the players are entirely exposed. Nobody ever needed to ponder, “Man, I wonder what John McEnroe felt about that point!” Or commented, “Geez, Serena Williams is being so stoic out there.” Competitors are unguarded to an occasionally detrimental extreme, which makes Netflix’s Break Point seem immediately less revelatory than its predecessor. But the 10-episode series about the 2022 professional tennis season still has exceptional photography, a carefully curated selection of stars and enough on- and off-court drama to hook those with even casual curiosity.
The first five episodes will premiere this week — with the second half airing in the summer — and they immediately make a compelling case for why the series and its focus have value for fans. The 2022 season was intended to mark a turning point for the sport, a year of transition. On the women’s side of the draw, Serena Williams was on the verge of retirement and a new generation of players was rising in visibility to fill the vacuum. On the men’s side, the Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — seemed close to possibly losing the supremacy they built up over a decade, without necessarily ceding the spotlight.
The players featured in Break Point, then, weren’t the biggest household names when filming began, but several were far closer by the end of the 2022 tour calendar. As featured here, they’re rising stars on the cusp, some verging on breaking into the Top 10, some already highly ranked but desperately in need of signature wins and some with clear developing personal narratives, regardless of wins or losses.
In the latter category, you’d put somebody like Nick Kyrgios, a love-him-or-hate-him bad boy with a questionable commitment to the sport; or Ons Jabeur, a Tunisian veteran in an unprecedented position for an African player; or maybe even Taylor Fritz, carrying the weight of a decade of struggles for American men.
With the first five episodes of the season focused on the Australian and French Opens, as well as key lead-in tournaments in Indian Wells and Madrid, there are also storylines built around the likes of Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, a former prodigy now coached by Rafael Nadal’s uncle; Italian Matteo Berrettini and his then-girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic; and compulsively polite Norwegian Casper Ruud.
If you follow the sport more than casually, you can already look at some of those names and know where their storylines are going in both the first and second halves of the series — just as you can look at some of the players who are only fleetingly on-camera in these five episodes and know that, for example, Tomljanovic and Frances Tiafoe are about to become really important when we eventually get around to the U.S. Open. The filmmakers didn’t get every burgeoning tennis personality from the year — Carlos Alcaraz’s absence is definitely felt — but they did pretty well.
The actual tennis is, finally, only a small corner of what Break Point is trying to cover. The series is actually at its best when it begins delving into the challenging terrain of mental health in tennis — a sport in which most players have to deal with losing, very publicly, on a weekly basis under a media glare in which there’s nobody else to take take blame or responsibility.
Players like Kyrgios or Paula Badosa or Maria Sakkari are excellent at breaking down the challenges that have nothing to do with how fast you serve or how proficiently you slide on a clay court. They discuss their support systems, the years of emotional baggage from youthful pressures and the impact of personal relationships, with many featured spouses and partners. Perhaps that’s why I found the access and storytelling in Break Point to be better when it’s focused on, for example, the squalor of Berrettini and Tomljanovic’s Aussie Open hotel room than any of the actual match action.
The cinematography is great, but at this point, the TV networks have invested so much in match technology that it’s hard to be blown away no matter which snazzy camera angles or enhanced slo-mo we’re given. Yes, it’s cool to see the burst of dissipating fuzz from a new tennis ball smacked with a thunderous forehand, but it’s much cooler to watch Rafael Nadal — frequently present, but never interviewed — attempting to psyche out an opponent by dancing up and down a hallway before pre-match introductions.
Fortunately, I don’t need to see “tennis” presented a different way and I don’t need the basics of tennis pre-digested and spat at me — though the first episode or two get very rudimentary when it comes to “points” and the difference between “singles” and “doubles.” That’s what I meant when I started by saying that Break Point has it easier than Formula 1: Drive to Survive and therefore that its achievement feels a little less.
However, the show fulfills its major aspiration: The Australian Open starts this week and there are already a dozen players who previously were just names in a box score or participants in matches I half-watched in the background while doing work, but now are athletes I’m looking forward to rooting for (or maybe, in one or two cases, against).
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