Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - UTennis: A Great Tennis Movie? Yeah, It's Possible
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UTennis: A Great Tennis Movie? Yeah, It's Possible 07/23/2010 - 11:10 AM

Tennis on film doesn’t have a happy history. Spring Break, Players, and Tennis, Anyone are all deservedly forgotten, Wimbledon isn't far behind, and even the supposedly classy Match Point by Woody Allen was a weird dud. In recent years, the sport has found its niche as a symbol of ironic hipster nostalgia—think Royal Tenenbaums and The Squid and the Whale—rather than as a movie’s central subject. What's been missing from all of them is the sport's most fundamental but underrated quality: its interior viciousness.

In fact, a philosophy professor has written a full-blown treatise on why a legitimate movie on the pro game cannot and will never be made. His main point is that the sport can’t be faked; there will never be an actor who will make you believe he can play like John McEnroe. To which there’s only one answer: What if John McEnroe is in your movie, playing tennis? Not just playing tennis, but having a prolonged and slightly disturbing meltdown while losing to Ivan Lendl at the 1981 French Open.

I know you’re thinking hard courts right now, but allow me to reach back for some dirt one last time in this post. The above clip of Johnny Mac—as well as Jimmy Connors, Lendl, and Jose-Luis Clerc—is from William Klein’s documentary The French, made at Roland Garros in ’81. A friend described it to me 10 years ago, and I’ve been trying to get a glimpse of it ever since. This week I accidentally discovered that a bunch of scenes have made it to You Tube. Which is nice for me, because I’m currently writing a book about tennis in that era, the tail end of what we now think of as the sport’s golden era. This movie brings us the game in a way we’re not used to seeing it presented. A few thoughts as I was watching:

—First, it’s a revelation after all these years to see a match from net level, with the camera isolated on one player. I don’t think I've ever realized how static the sport appears on TV, where you watch virtually every point from above. The artistic quality of the documentary is evident in the shot of Connors losing it and slamming a ball into the court. You don’t hear what he says, or see his face as he says it, which makes the motions of his outburst seem a little surreal and more dramatic. He looks like an actor playing a tennis player.

—Clerc is a sort of forgotten man from this period. But you have to love his strokes; he could obviously hit the one-hander with power, and construct a point. I also like the little shuffle-step victory dance he does after he sees that his last forehand will be a winner.

 —Then it's time for Johnny Mac, who comes on skinny and coiled and agitated—like one of the Rolling Stones in a Davis Cup uniform. The voice is unmistakably New York; it cuts through the air, even if he sounds at times like a little kid here. He’s agitated for a lot of reasons. In his autobiography, McEnroe says that this tournament marked the beginning of the end for his relationship with Stacy Margolin, and that even then he was worried about Wimbledon. He knew he should beat Borg this time, but he had to make it happen. He was also playing Lendl, a junior rival who he never really respected, but who he would always measure himself against.

—Funny that the chair umpire does what McEnroe tells him to do every time. They talk about a breakdown in authority in general during this era, and you can see it here. The players were running the show. I wonder how an ump would react today? Probably the same way?

—Then McEnroe goes out to play, and the film reminds you again, but in a new way, of how unique he is. Unique first in the way he hits the ball. He said that from the beginning he could feel the ball on the strings up into his arm; the way he describes it, I know I’ve never felt that myself. The stark contrast with the heavy-footed and heavier-hitting Lendl is already apparent, though Lendl doesn’t appear to have the edge to his personality that he would develop when he became No. 1—he doesn’t say a word in this clip. McEnroe has him on a string for many of these points, but Lendl wins a lot of them anyway. He’d eventually win the match. You can see the sport's future in his game, and in his open-throated adidas racquet.

—From this vantage point, it seemed like McEnroe almost played this match to lose. He complains about the court as a distraction from his own anxiety. He has said his anger generally came from his nerves, which has always seemed odd to me. I think of nerves as making people quieter. McEnroe also says he regrets now that he was never able to joke around at all on a tennis court. He considered it work, and something to be serious about. He thought any joking had to be phony, and phoniness was the enemy. This film lets you get a sense of the self-torment the guy went through out there, and how the storm gathered over the course of a match. It’s hard to watch, but can you turn away? Here it is at last: The interior viciousness of tennis.

—There are other clips from The French out there that are also must-sees. Borg and Noah describing a point they played against each other; Borg at a promotional hitting session; Harold Solomon’s coach reacting to his mistakes; the Evert-Mandlikova final; and a pretty embarrassing sweet 16 photo-op with Andrea Jaeger and an impossibly young-looking Jimmy Arias. (You can find most of these on the YouTube page with the clip above.) It was a colorful period, and tournament, and it’s no surprise that the sport’s only great movie would have come out of it.


Have a good weekend. I’ll be back on Monday to talk about Atlanta and Hamburg.


Posted by Franc 07/23/2010 at 11:24 AM

First...mmmmmm what's the deal?

Posted by The Magus 07/23/2010 at 11:47 AM

How strange is that?!! I bought the dvd five days ago and watched it Wednesday! I think it's the only documentary that allow us to REALLY enter in the other side of tennis. In the locker room for example. They opened it once, but now it seems like we'll never see something like this in a long time.

To all tennis fans, watch that William Klein movie. It's a rare document.

Posted by Susan 07/23/2010 at 12:17 PM

Hi Steve,

I enjoy your writing and the topics you cover -- just finished reading the college post. Keep up the good work.

Looking forward to your tennis book.


Posted by Michele 07/23/2010 at 12:22 PM

This is fascinating to watch, thanks for sharing. Also, I don't mind Tennis, Anyone? if only because I had zero expectations and love Kirk Fox (he can really play, which is a bonus).

Anyway, also great to (finally!) hear you're writing a book. Looking forward to it!

Posted by loreley 07/23/2010 at 12:22 PM

Thank you for the hint.

I often think that it doesn't help in tennis to be too nice.

I'm sure you know Strangers on a Train by Hitchcock. Also Dial M for Murder. The criminals are tennis players. Probably Hitchcock didn't trust the gentlemen attitude at that time.

Posted by Vin Misra 07/23/2010 at 12:38 PM

"there will never be an actor who will make you believe he can play like John McEnroe." I guess Spike Lee cast Ray Allen in He Got Game for much the same reason.

Posted by Steve 07/23/2010 at 12:40 PM

right: strangers on a train. great movie. there was tennis in dial m for murder?

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/23/2010 at 12:43 PM

"First, it’s a revelation after all these years to see a match from net level, with the camera isolated on one player."

Can provide great shots. An example being the net-level camera shot of the lob delPo got over Rafa at last year's Montreal tournament, in the first set TB.

I would suggest that you or someone else at TW use your connections to determine if there are videos of great Lamar Hunt WCT matches in storage that can be made available to the general public and haven't been done so yet.

One match I have in mind is a Borg-Laver semis 5-setter from a mid-1970s WCT finals tournament. I've only been able to track down a 12 or so minute hilite video of that match.

Laver was a bit past his peak. Borg had not yet reached his peak, but was close. Match features tremendous shotmaking from both players, with Laver--who was about 15 years older than Borg--running out of gas in the fifth set.

Posted by loreley 07/23/2010 at 12:47 PM

Ray Milland was a retired tennis pro.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/23/2010 at 12:48 PM

Ray Milland, in Dial M was an over-the-hill tennis player or one who had recently retired.

Rock-scissors-paper-tennis racket.

Scissors beats tennis racket, especially if the tennis racket is not in hand.

Posted by Bodie 07/23/2010 at 12:56 PM

I have no comment on the post per se. But "the supposedly classy Match Point by Woody Allen was a weird dud" ? Seriously?

Clearly, you have no appreciation of true cinema.

Match Point is a fabulous re-telling of Woody's own Crimes and Misdemeanors and was his comeback film after some forgettable films.

And ... it IS a very good film.

Posted by 1963USCtennis 07/23/2010 at 01:00 PM

"From this vantage point, it seemed like McEnroe almost played this match to lose"

and to a large degree this applies to his whole post 1984 career.

I get that same feeling when I think of Clerc... oh what could have been, but the relentless nature of the sport to have to try and prove "yourself" every single point is... daunting.

Another reason why I admire and love to watch Rafael Nadal and the only other player whom I have ever seen to "not ever give up"; James Scott Connors.

awesome clips

Posted by lilscot 07/23/2010 at 01:02 PM

Just saw over at espn that Rafa is going to play Thailand. I wonder if that means he's going to play there then both Toronto and Cincy? And DelPo is playing as well. That's not really resting a lot is it?

Posted by Christopher 07/23/2010 at 01:03 PM

Loved the clip. But more exciting is the comment that you're working on a book, Steve. I can't wait!

Posted by 1963USCtennis 07/23/2010 at 01:10 PM

"Just saw over at espn that Rafa is going to play Thailand. I wonder if that means he's going to play there then both Toronto and Cincy? And DelPo is playing as well. That's not really resting a lot is it?

wow, this is something I've never understood from his camp. I guess the guy just feels the need to get out there and compete. With his propensity to get hurt I cannot see the need to play in Thailand. But hey, my name is not Antonio Nadal.

In the past he treated this part of the year as a way to be consistent but not necessarily rack up the trophies, so a bunch of semis would do.

It does appear he has realized he needs to play it like he did at Wimbledon where the player can treat the "tune up" event like..... a tune up. Roger Federer has been doing it so well for the last few years including 2008 where he appeared somewhat pedestrian in the tune-ups leading to Flushing Meadows, then WHAM, BAM, THANK YOU 4 ANOTHER (SLAM) MAJOR (only two have won the slam...)

Posted by Tennis Fan 07/23/2010 at 01:11 PM

No one has written a good script, yet.

Posted by lilscot 07/23/2010 at 01:13 PM


I'm not going to put too much stock into his playing in Thailand just yet. Sometimes espn gets things wrong. I went to Rafa's website and there's no mention of it there. Just that they are training hard and looking forward to Toronto and Cincy. So we'll see I guess. I really wish he wouldn't play Thailand. No need to. No points to defend and it's not a 1000 series. Hmmm.

Posted by lilscot 07/23/2010 at 01:16 PM

Now, about this post. Loved the old clip. I actually remember watching that match. It's funny now to see how young Lendl looked then as compared to his formative years as #1. And how quiet he was. The one thing I agreed with Johnny Mac about was about having someone come out and check the courts. I could never stand watching JMac when he went on a tirade, but amidst all the yelling there was usually a good point he was trying to make. How can officials tell the players the courts are fine when they haven't even come out to check them themselves?

And Steve, can't wait for your book.

Posted by wlee 07/23/2010 at 01:38 PM

thailand open starts sept. 27. not before USopen.

Posted by GeoffB 07/23/2010 at 01:38 PM

There are two things I can't stand watching in films: actors playing violin or tennis. Russel Crowe made such an effort to simulate proper violin technique in Master and Commander, and while it was better than most, it was still painfully obvious that he wasn't *really* playing, and it took me out of the scene. You can fake it with piano by showing the fingers, then cutting away so that you see the actor's face but don't see the hands. But how do you show someone playing the violin?

Tennis is very similar. It's so difficult to simulate this kind of movement. This kind of movement *is* what makes a tennis player good at the sport.

I agree with your philosophy professor. It's extremely unlikely that an actor, even a gifted one, will be able to mimic these movements well enough to stay believable.

Posted by lilscot 07/23/2010 at 01:49 PM

wlee: 1:38 p.m.

Hope this doesn't double-post but here goes. Thanks for that info. I was starting to get worried for those knees! :)

Posted by pov 07/23/2010 at 01:51 PM

- Surprised that static TV perspective hasn't been noticed. Every time I watch tennis I'm convinced I could do a way better job with directing the cameras. Not only is it static - it's across the board.

- Many people react to nerves by becoming tense then angry. In fact numerous fights are started by people in that state.

Posted by adman 07/23/2010 at 01:55 PM

haha this post just made me think of the tennis movie done by Sean William Scott. It was absolutely horrible, but it had some real tennis juniors playing. It's called Larry the Tennis Coach. Well I think that is the name. Its a raunchy comedy; kinda the opposite you would expect from a tennis movie right?

Posted by 1963USCtennis 07/23/2010 at 02:02 PM

"thailand open starts sept. 27. not before USopen."

(I guess I "could" have checked the dates, one more reason my name is not Antonio Nadal)

Posted by Geellis 07/23/2010 at 02:20 PM

As if we needed any context for Serena's outburst at last year's USO. Clearly the game has changed. Based upon one outburst in her career her legion of haters attempt to justify their indecent, and surely pre-existing, vitriolic dislike of her. McEnroe reminds us of what it means to be a boorish player, rather than having had one boorish outbreak.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/23/2010 at 02:36 PM

Apparently some posters can't count past one.

Serena Williams, directing comments to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, during 2009 Roland Garros match:

“I’m going to get you in the locker room for that; you don’t know me,”

Additionally, Williams also said the following to the chair ump during that match:

“She better not come to the net again.”

But, when it comes to S.Williams, let's ignore accurate statistics.

After all, she's the GOAT, despite winning far fewer singles majors than true GOAT candidates and at least 500-900 fewer singles matches on the women's tour than players such as Evert, Graf, and Navratilova.

Posted by Steve 07/23/2010 at 02:46 PM

Gary the Tennis Coach. I had high hopes, but you need to stay far away from that one.

here's hoping this post doesn't turn into a fight over serena's tirade. it's been hashed.

Posted by Tennisfan 07/23/2010 at 02:55 PM

As much as I love Johnny now, I hate this idiotic, brash, inconsiderate Ugly American. Everything the world denounces and sneers at America for, then and now, Johnny Mac was the embodiment of it in this silly looking video. What entitlement! Who gave him that? And why this idiocy is supposed to cute and nostalgic? What snooty, petulant arrogance! What a pissy way to behave in public! Revolting is a big word and irritating doesnt fit the bill. Disgusting.

Posted by Tennisfan 07/23/2010 at 03:00 PM

Steve already wrote a good rebuttal on that one - The Serena GOAT bogie. Rubbish it is.

You have to remind yourself. Americans love to forgive themselves very easily for idiotic aggressive embarassing public behavior on sports fields. Most times they think that is only way they think. Come to think of it, most to these are part of the NFL, NBA, MLB and Hockey (where beating each other numb with sticks is a spectacle people pray and wait for).

Silly in all.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 07/23/2010 at 03:40 PM

Well, I'm off to California's Monterey Peninsula to catch the MotoGP Race at Laguna Seca.

Enjoy your weekend as much as I will mine.

Posted by Foot Fault 07/23/2010 at 04:18 PM

Thanks, Steve, excellent essay. Anyone know how to obtain a copy of this documentary?

"McEnroe also says he regrets now that he was never able to joke around at all on a tennis court. He considered it work, and something to be serious about."

I suppose I can understand this during his career. What's really strange is that even on the Senior's Tour or whatever it's called he STILL can't seem to enjoy himself. He still argues calls and he still looks unbelievably miserable on the tennis court. That's why it's always a hoot when, as a commentator, he criticizes a particular player's "body language". This from someone who looks like a convicted murderer walking toward the electric chair, at least when he's playing tennis.

Posted by Serena, the Greatest 07/23/2010 at 04:19 PM

it's one incident dude. period. one incident. moreover as usual, you have a fanatical way of ignoring the substance of what anyone says and peeling at the edges. most fatuous. oh well, perhaps the nature of our little discourse will benefit from your absence while at laguna seca. one can only hope.

Posted by reckoner 07/23/2010 at 05:56 PM

the clip above doesnt show the final w/ borg and lendl that yr...

this one does:

Posted by Corrie 07/23/2010 at 06:03 PM

Tennisfan, I agree I can't see anything except bad sportsmanship in McEnroe's tirades of entitlement.

Why call "Match Point" a "weird dud"? I think it's one of Woody Allen's best movies with a very gripping plot and great ending.

Posted by Tennis Fan 07/23/2010 at 06:39 PM

"It's extremely unlikely that an actor, even a gifted one, will be able to mimic these movements well enough to stay believable."

So you cast Serena then - she wants to be an actress. Sharapova also. I'm sure any of them would love to be cast in a movie.

Was Stallone believable as a boxer or Nick Nolte and Mac Davis as football players. You have to have a good script the right director and you can't cast an emaciated actress like Kirsten Dunst either. You have to cast a real tennis player or an unknown actress with a believable body. It can be done with the right script and a good director but the story has to transcend tennis like Rocky did.

Posted by CPM 07/23/2010 at 08:21 PM

"In fact, a philosophy professor has written a full-blown treatise on why a legitimate movie on the pro game cannot and will never be made."


Cite, plz?

Posted by Johnny C. 07/23/2010 at 10:45 PM

Rafa gets a ton of cash to play Thailand. I dont the know the exact amount but its like $250k or something.

Posted by tdub 07/24/2010 at 01:06 AM

Lendl comes off as such a prig in this film. In the locker room scenes Noah hangs around totally naked and always seems like he's about to flash the camera, and even Borg is elegant and at ease showing some skin. But Lendl insists on getting fully-clothed post-match body massages while Klein's cameras are there. You can see the future of the sport there as well, comparing Lendl's control freak unsexiness with the easygoing machismo of the other players.

I also love Mandlikova, how weirdly humble she is speaking about Evert. It's so poignant, the way she yearns to beat her but accepts that she's up against a better player.

Posted by ncot 07/24/2010 at 02:11 AM

hi guys! Just wanna share this video of dj-off bet martin solveig and bob sinclair using tennis as backdrop.i loves it!!!:)

Posted by ncot 07/24/2010 at 02:13 AM

I forgot to add that novak djokovic and gael monfils made a cameo appearance too.;)

Posted by JollyJohn 07/24/2010 at 07:51 AM

"Pat and Mike' is an old Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn movie where tennis features prominently.
It has Katherine Hepburn playing Gussie Moran at one point. Its the only footage ive seen of the woman some have said was the original Kournikova.
The 'choking' element of the movie is very apt, and funny.
Well worth a look.

Posted by sisu 07/24/2010 at 08:07 AM

JollyJohn - good memory! That's a fun movie and I never knew that about Moran being the "original" Kournikova. The "choking" scene is quite funny!

Posted by sally 07/24/2010 at 10:58 AM

is Kym around?
this is a perfect
post for you to
grip about classless
and low character americans!!

Posted by CL 07/24/2010 at 01:24 PM

Pat and Mike:

Mike: "She don't have much meat on'er, but what's there is cherce."

And the 'handshake' marriage acceptance is also fabulous. Talk about 'safe sex!' lol. (Though, I suppose there is always flu to contract.)

Posted by kym 07/24/2010 at 03:25 PM

Hi Sally. Kym is still around and is still posting. I just tried to post a poem about the champions of the US Open 2010, but it did not go through. The reason is the poem said female tennis fans wish the Amazonian would not recover in time for the US open so that we can enjoy more cultured tennis. I am not against American tennis players, but really wish they would behave a little bit better. I live in America (New York city), so it would be silly to say bad things about people living around you, right? But the truth is necessarily said occasionally. I am not the only one to complain about American tennis players. Here is a question: Which American tennis player said: "We
Americans are spoiled?" Yeah, the clip is about JMc. How many times I have read in papers that people wanted him to be barred from tennis competition? Too many times!

Posted by Tuulia 07/24/2010 at 05:11 PM

lilscot et al - Rafa was earlier reported to be playing Tokyo, and then Thailand. Then there's Shanghai Masters right after. 3 weeks in a row? If he no longer did it on clay, skipping a tournament he loves, one at his club, where he had won the 5 previous years, then why on earth would he do that on bleedin hardcourt? Well, there's no slam nevermind two coming up at that time, but still... I'm assuming either Thailand or Tokyo must be incorrect (I must say the Tokyo info sounded reliable while Thailand did not, it was, um, peculiar.)

Posted by michel 07/24/2010 at 05:48 PM

yes, what is the name of the book/article by the philosopher that steve refers to????

Posted by sally 07/24/2010 at 06:24 PM

kym-how can you stand to live around such
no culture, classless people? i would think
you would be happier in western europe,
not eastern europe, since you don't much
like them either.

personally, johnny mac was when tennis was
fun and crazy. bring back the days of connors
mac and that wacky Romanian llie nastase.

Posted by MoneyPenny 07/24/2010 at 08:34 PM

It's interesting watching another excerpt from the same film from the FO final where Mandlikova defeated Hanika. There are hairier versions of John Barrett and Fred Stolle in the commentary box.

Plus there was an interloper during the trophy presentation who inserts himself in the middle of the official photo call (some guy wearing a placard on his chest with something about John Paul II on it).

Then, at the very end of the clip, there is footage of a female player collecting her prizemoney from the administration office (in cash!... which the player counts carefully).

Certainly was a different era.

Posted by gooblerone 07/25/2010 at 01:31 AM

where can one obtain a dvd of this documentary?

Posted by Donal 07/25/2010 at 08:40 AM

Liked the post but I must protest that Tennis, Anyone is an exceptional Indie film with excellent performances and also the actors produce quite a fine display of tennis. The focus of the film is not tennis but themes such as friendship, and finding one's purpose.

In my opinion this is one of the few good movies that are centered around a sports theme!

Posted by Wafto Weefie 07/25/2010 at 07:29 PM

I think it would be great to change a performance of a Shakespearean play by directly substituting the famous "You-cannot-be-serious" saliloque for a real scene.

I wonder which best play would be best for this substitution?

Posted by Wafto Weefie 07/25/2010 at 07:33 PM


Write a play in the style of Shakespeare about the tennis players of the 1970s and 1980s?

The real-life players are perfect as Shakespearean characters.

Of course you could change the facts to add a couple of murders and suicides.

Posted by Wafto Weefie 07/25/2010 at 07:39 PM

What's the local cuisine like in Bad Gastein?

Posted by Dan Markowitz 07/26/2010 at 12:17 AM

Great stuff, Steve. Thanks for uncovering this video. I had never heard of this documentary, but I now know I want to see it and experience those raw times again. Your piece made me write one of my own about my experience of watching Johnny Mac over the years and how deeply he has made me feel.

I compare Mac and his hostility to Mardy Fish, and the players today, and their relative good manners on the court. Anyone interested can check out this link.

Posted by Jay 07/26/2010 at 09:21 AM

Did anyone see the Jim Courier-produced documentary? I heard that it was excellent, as well.

Posted by espnalanaldo 08/03/2010 at 09:05 PM

This clip shows what a jerk Macenroe was. Period.

No sugarcoating it. His behavior is just horrible and a slap in the face of Americans.

Posted by espnalanaldo 08/03/2010 at 09:21 PM

Why would anyone post such clip showing the putrid arrogance and stupid entitlement, assinine and condescending behavior of McEnroe. I am glad I was not in that generation of self-absorbed players.

For whatever it is worth, I am proud of the current crop of players now, whose only claim to despicable behavior is some gamesmanship now and then.

I guess, as a society, tennis has been transformed for the better. And we are thankful for that.

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