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  • Writer's pictureMichael Augsberger

Down a Break

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Netflix’s tennis series cannot live up to the Drive to Survive standard, but it contains hints that the right drama can emerge

by Michael Augsberger

By far the most interesting storyline in Break Point arrives in the fifth episode. You must wait for it. Rafael Nadal’s uncle and longtime coach Toni now advises rising Canadian star Felix Auger-Aliassime. It is the 2022 French Open, and Felix skates into the Round of 16 where he will face—Nadal himself.

This poses conundrums of ethics and loyalty for the tennis world if not for the coach. Toni flat-out tells the press, “Of course I want my nephew to win,” and can bear neither to sit in Felix’s box nor to watch the final set at all. Tennis legends like Patrick Mouratoglou convincingly castigate him. Voice-over pundits debate coaching professionalism on tour. Felix and his full-time coach may seem understanding, noting Toni’s role as consultant and honesty about his conflict of interest well before stepping into it. Yet in one beautifully captured moment, Felix and Toni have just learned Rafa will be the opponent. Felix cools down on the stationary bike. Toni approaches. Neither can say a word. Neither can look at the other.

Right there is the tension made famous in this same production team’s legendary Drive to Survive, from which this tennis knockoff derives. It rarely makes an appearance here. That’s a shame, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story for the series still in its first season.

Oh, the promise was great. Drive to Survive single-handedly ushered in a new, reinvigorated and media-savvy era of Formula 1 fandom unmatched in history for mainstream appeal. Races around the world have never seen such record crowds. All of this is due to Formula 1’s pivot in 2017 to update its media strategy. They faced the music: Races are boring. To borrow from Gary Lineker, they’re simple contests. Teams drive in circles for two hours, no one passes, and at the end the Germans win.

So the FIA realized what every great film director does: It’s about the relationships. Not the tech, not even the race. They brought in Marvel composer Brian Tyler to humanize the raceday soundtrack. They struck oil with Netflix’s series. Most importantly, and in concert with Drive to Survive, they cultivated unfettered, unfiltered access to not only their male-model drivers but also the ingenious principals that lead their teams.

The races come to life only when you know the characters. It is the perfect scenario for a documentary series—supplant the banal gameday spectacle with the human drama of the fractious relationships between teammates and rivals, leaders and teams, investors and leaders. You are printing money. High-class European sport has this quality that NFL sideline reporters just can’t elicit from coaches. Their frankness, like Toni Nadal’s, is astonishing.

The problems with this tennis version take root in its differences from Formula 1. Perhaps tennis did not need surgery to raise its gameday product from life support. Three all-time greats may have dominated the sport for some time now, but the on-court strategy, precision, power, and skill have never been more thrilling. In this series (and most tennis docs), we don’t watch any of it. Fair enough—it’s supposed to be about the players’ inner feelings, relationships. Yet most damning of all, their relationships produce almost no conflict. Everyone is fighting for precious points and prizes in a zero-sum-game, but somehow not against each other.

What passes as conflict in the rest of the series amounts to an imbroglio between Norwegian star Casper Ruud’s team and the fresh-faced grounds crew on a Roland Garros practice court. It begins to rain just as Ruud steps on to warm up for his match. Orders from the tournament director, relayed to Ruud by these young pawns, say to cover the court, but we all know you can play on clay in a drizzle. There is talk of how vital the pre-match hitting routine is. Someone forgot to tell them that they speak French in France and that a gentleman lodges a complaint with the manager, not the waiter.

After four placid episodes, this is welcome drama, a fun inside look. I admit to hoping Ruud would lose later that day in order to prove that the pregame workout was indeed necessary, just as you might root for a divorce to prove the pairing was wrong from the start. But no, he advances to get clobbered by Nadal.

Matteo Berrettini and Ajla Tomljanovic are necessarily self-centered stars in La La Land pretending their lover’s success is as important to them as their own. As more than one authority points out, you have to put yourself first in order to get to this point. It’s as intriguing to see the clothes strewn about everywhere in their Melbourne hotel room as it is to experience the isolation they must feel on the road, how they grasp each other for stability. Underlying their tender airport farewell, the difference in status never lets us fully empathize. The world’s 40th-ranked woman is flying to the next tournament, out in the early rounds while No. 6 Berrettini continues. When they bicker over where Ajla can do her interview without disrupting Matteo’s sleep, it’s clear what takes precedence and why.

Berrettini—and at times others, like Ons Jabeur—does offer some philosophy on the unique stresses of pro tennis. “Without the fear, there is no will,” he contemplates. The series contains more than lip-service adages about the mental side of the game. Here there is real meat: coaches giving sagely advice, players discussing how they cope with the pressure. Pressure, we learn, has been known to make even Rafa cry.

Jabeur, the first Arab and Muslim woman to reach a Grand Slam final, recounts with her husband the sacrifices they’ve made, postponing children and shaping his career to support her landmark success. Both couples personify the modern trials of career equality. While we reflect on Berrettini and Tomljanovic’s competition between lovers, we examine through Jabeur the dynamic, common in tennis but feared most everywhere else, between a husband and wife working as vendor-client.

Tennis’s version also suffers, paradoxically, from both its immensity in numbers and its lack of teams. There are so many players to choose from that we cannot stick with any one for long. No arcs can yet be found; the most we see of Tomljanovic after Australia, for instance, is one shot of her practicing in Paris. (To be fair, the second half of the season detailing Wimbledon and the US Open isn’t due to be aired until June.) And without teams, we lack the irresistible complexities of athletes who are at once teammates and bitter rivals.

Break Point opens with a bona fide star, though, like the original series, not with the reigning top dogs. Unable to lure the Nadals and Lewis Hamiltons of the world until proof of concept, both shows chose a brash Australian bad boy seeking redemption at his home event (at exactly the same location in Melbourne Park, no less) for their pilot episodes. On the tarmac it was Daniel Ricciardo whose tempestuous demeanor and pride led him to bolt the team that would win the championship without him for two inferior rivals in succession. He’s no longer even on the grid.

Here we begin with whether Nick Kyrgios can avoid that same fate. Indeed, bereft of ideas, it seems, we follow the hometown hero almost every time, just as Drive to Survive does. Taylor Fritz in California, Paula Badosa in Spain, Tomljanovic in Melbourne. All the more to say: The exquisite F1 team has tried to recycle what’s worked, and it needs tweaking.

Too self-important to be bothered in Season 1, the untouchable Mercedes team jumped right in after Drive to Survive’s initial success. Among Break Point’s finest achievements is its handling of Mercedes’s tennis equivalent, Nadal. There are no private interviews like Kyrgios and Jabeur give. It survives just fine on press conferences and a deftly crafted conversation between Toni and Rafa. I cannot see Rafa joining next year, like Mercedes’s Toto Wolff did. But you know who ought to? Novak Djokovic. It could be his opportunity to invite fans to know him better, to finally love him.

Clearly, Christian Horner and Toto Wolff are not walking through that door. These brilliantly compelling F1 principals of Red Bull and Mercedes, respectively, lead $500-million, 1,000-employee companies. No wonder they command more attention than a mid-ranked player’s physiotherapist. But what Netflix did for F1, ESPN has been doing for tennis for decades. That’s where on-court brilliance meets intelligent analysis and off-court personality. It’s not surprising that Break Point’s best turns, then, come from ESPN voices like Mouratoglou, Chrissie Evert, and John McEnroe.

Mouratoglou, so Euro-honest that he admitted coaching Serena Williams from the stands during that US Open fiasco, may well be the most informative and sophisticated tennis pundit alive. Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova, no strangers to expressing themselves with confidence, offer immense, pointed insight. I believe it says something, though, when your pundits outshine your stars.

Tennis hardly lacks for conflict and rivalry on the pro tours. This is the sport in which Rafa once questioned Robin Soderling’s afterlife prospects: “We’ll see what happens in the end of life, no?” It is of a decidedly different kind from the Formula 1 variety, crossing exponentially more social networks than twenty drivers can produce. Finding the wellspring will take deeper digging than we’ve seen so far. Yet Toni and Felix showed that the drama can be unearthed with the right equipment.

2.5 out of four Slams

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