Tennis at the movies: The good, the bad and the ugly

To coincide with the release of “Challengers”, we look at the best and worst films involving tennis

Will Smith at the premiere of the motion picture King Richard at Curzon Mayfair London Will Smith at the premiere of the motion picture King Richard at Curzon Mayfair London – © Imago / Panoramic

The widespread acclaim for “Challengers” – the new film about tennis with Zendaya – seems to be bucking the trend for tennis films, many of which have been more the butt of jokes than find themselves in contention for any film awards.

Starring American actress and singer Zendaya, Challengers is released in the United States and UK today (April 26) and is expected to be a success at the box office, having already impressed the critics. The tennis, too, has received the thumbs-up, for which much thanks should go to Brad Gilbert, who worked as a consultant and coach to the actors in the film.

It got us thinking; what are the best tennis films, or films with tennis featuring prominently into the plot, and what are the worst, or most disappointing? It’s a subjective list, of course, as most of these things are, but it might make you want to watch one or two you haven’t seen so far or just scream at your screen in disgust/laugh along.

The best: Borg-Mcenroe leads the way

Borg v McEnroe – This was a good one, not least since the “young Bjorn Borg” was played by Borg’s son, Leo, a professional tennis player himself. The tennis scenes are much better than most tennis films but it’s the story that’s so fascinating, with two seemingly opposite characters playing it out on some of the biggest stages in the world, while at the same time dealing with their own demons. Borg and McEnroe fans will know, of course, that they were good friends off the court and remain so, to this day.

Strangers on a Train – Director Alfred Hitchcock used background footage from the 1950 Davis Cup finals at Forest Hills, which gave the tennis scenes instant gravitas. The tennis was good but the main tennis scene itself is a piece of genius, with one of the protagonists staring straight ahead while the rest of the crowd turn their heads side to side, watching the ball. Above all, the film, about two strangers who meet on a train and plot the murder of each other’s wife, is a classic.

The Royal Tenenbaums – This wacky, star-studded Wes Anderson film contains an hilarious tennis scene at the end where Luke Wilson, who had a breakdown on court earlier in the film, is coaching a child. Wilson belts a forehand for a winner, giving the child no chance, before marching around the other side of the net. His earlier meltdown, however, is a legendary scene in itself.

Battle of the Sexes – Not to be confused with the documentary of the iconic 1973 clash between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but very good, nevertheless. Emma Stone really got many of King’s movements right, including her service routine, which is impressive in and of itself, and the film does bring the drama of the occasion – watched by a record estimated 90 million people on TV worldwide – to life.

King Richard – Will Smith’s star turn as Richard Williams drew the headlines (especially after his impression of Muhammad Ali at the Oscars) but it was the story itself that made the film so compelling. How Venus Williams and Serena Williams made it out of Compton, with the help of their devoted parents, to become the best players in the world and iconic game-changers of our sport, is still an incredible tale. The young actors playing the sisters as juniors were also excellent.

The bad: Wimbledon, Players

Wimbledon – Slated by the critics, it’s vaguely entertaining, though the tennis scenes seemed like they were sped up. Pat Cash trained Paul Bettany and Dom Inglot was his double. It’s a cheesy romantic comedy but its ridiculous scene, where Bettany and Kirsten Dunst drive out of London at night and arrive in Brighton first thing in the morning is a bit of a joke. Now, British roads are not up to much but it’s only a 90-minute journey. Guess they must have stopped for a break at a service station.

Players – This film is most memorable for how many professional players they managed to agree to do a cameo, including the likes of John McEnroe, but otherwise it was pretty unremarkable and even though it had Ali McGraw as the lead, it failed to hit the heights (the reviews were genuinely terrible). Its one saving grace, though, was the tennis, which was good.

Match Point – This could have been good, with Woody Allen directing and Scarlett Johansson starring, and it was well-received in the US. Less so in the UK, where it was filmed – the tennis scenes were shot at Queen’s Club – with reviewers calling it clunky and cumbersome, among other things.

The ugly: Confetti

Confetti – The tennis here is rubbish while the story, a comedy, is poor too; three couples wanting to have perfect wedding – including a tennis-pro couple. One to avoid.

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