Tennis Is Having a Media Moment

Whether it’s hardcourt, grass or clay, the racquet racket is on a popular culture upswing.

| 17 Jun 2024 | 02:16

Yes, the NBA finals are in progress, the Yankees are soaring, and Jets fans await Aaron Rodgers’ arrival from... somewhere. Meanwhile, it is tennis that is everywhere. The second Major has just ended, Wimbledon is only a month away, and U.S. Open tickets are already being sold. That is the real stuff.

Now for the reel variety. In Challengers, on our movie and streaming screens, Zendaya is coaching two players in a back- and- forth romantic rally. Also in movie theatres, is Step Through Time, a documentary about Stan Smith, a former player most known these days for shoes that carry his name.

On its hoped-for way to Broadway is Love All, about the life, loves, and times of Billie Jean King. It debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse and has dreams of moving up by the time of the Open. (Maybe in 2025?) On television, the Annette Bening series, Apples Never Fall, (based on Liane Moriarty’s book) deals with a married couple who run a tennis academy. Peacock is pushing for Emmy nominations.

Speaking of best-selling novels and novelists, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s last one –Carrie Soto Is Back—was described as “a deep dive into womens’ tennis.” Even Barbie is picking up a racquet. Mattel will honor Venus Williams and eight other athletes as part of a project just announced. “Throughout my career, I’ve always been driven by the idea of shattering glass ceilings and staying true to myself, and Barbie’s mission couldn’t resonate more deeply with that ethos,” said Williams, who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles. Now, she will be a doll.

“Perhaps, just perhaps, the surge of interest in women’s sports has sent people to tennis and the pioneer role of Billie Jean,” observes Joel Drucker, one of the best writers about the game. “That, in turn, sends them to explore other dimensions of the sport.”

“I have found almost every movie with tennis as the central theme to be hugely disappointing,” says Tim Barry, the long-time pro in the famed Malibu Colony. (Having taught countless celebs, including Barbra Streisand for her single serve in The Way We Were) “Mostly because the actors rarely look authentic.” Malibu remains a tennis hub of sorts. In 2007, Larry Ellison, a hugely wealthy resident, avid player and fan, walked into a dilapidated attempt at a club, and bought it on the spot. Today, a beautifully renovated Malibu Racquet Club has a waiting list of 250.

In terms of making the game transfer credibly to other mediums, guidance is crucial. Tennis legend Brad Gilbert, who now coaches Coco Gauff, served as key consultant on Challengers. He brought in Eric Taino, a pro who had helped on King Richard. “Most of my work was working with Zendaya (poor guy) before the film started,” says Taino. “She was easy to teach, as she is very coordinated and athletic. At the very least, we wanted to match or do better than King Richard, setting a new standard.”

Clearly, there have been previous films that dealt with the game, including Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Woody Allen’s Match Point, (and let’s not forget Annie Hall met Alvy at a New York tennis club) and Will Smith’s Oscar-winning role in the aforementioned King Richard. Joel Drucker notes that some of its best players—including bi-coastal John McEnroe and his long-time opponent Boris Becker— publicly agonized over struggles as athletes and icons. “There came the view,” Drucker says, “that at its core, tennis may be toxic. That notion blossomed further in Andre Agassi’s 2009 book Open: tennis devours the souls of its young.”

In other words, the “performers” became more interesting, more dramatic. Which is why non-fiction tales likely work best. ESPN’s documentary series, “30 for 30,“ offered great takes on the Borg-McEnroe rivalry and the Chris-Martina one. Next up on Netflix: a docuseries called Alcaraz, about today’s dazzling Spanish star who just won the French Open.

Arguably, this is the American city most connected to great tennis. “I think New Yorkers take great pride in the fact that the US Open is truly a microcosm of the city itself,” says broadcaster Andrea Joyce, who has covered it for decades. “It’s loud, colorful, diverse and unpredictable. Walking the grounds of the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center is much like walking around NYC...hearing all languages, gathering to watch spectacular athletes competing in a sport we love.”

Now, of course, there is the threat of another game taking over. I dare you to find one court in the last few years that has not been chopped in half. “Our weekly drop-in clinics are the perfect opportunity for players of all levels to improve their skills, meet fellow enthusiasts, and enjoy the thrilling sport of pickleball,” promises the 92Y. They are not alone.

So, how long before we see Love In The Kitchen, in which George Clooney and Julia Roberts test their reflexes?

As a junior, Michele Willens was once ranked 13 in Southern California. “It’s been all downhill since then,” she notes.