Break Point, Netflix’s new behind-the-scenes documentary series about the 2022 tennis season, is by the team behind the excellent F1: Drive to Survive – but although it emulates that show’s slick presentational sheen, making tennis as exciting a subject as motor racing is difficult. Blokes who race cars are gossipy playboys enjoying a sport full of controversy, political manoeuvres, garish eccentricity and the real risk of fiery death. Tennis cannot compete with that: the big dramas happen inside the players’ heads, and Break Point is an only intermittently successful attempt to capture them on screen.
This style of documentary, where kinetic game footage is mixed with revealing interviews and a lot of blustery cliche about how epic and exciting everything is, just doesn’t suit tennis very well. Whereas team field sports – rugby, soccer, American football – have big moments that energise other popular series such as All or Nothing, tennis matches are attritional, technical battles, decided gradually in matches that can last for several hours. There are no big-money transfers or arguments over team selection. How about the in-game pep talks from coaches that are often the best bit of a sports doc? Nope. Not really a thing in tennis. Like us, the coaches observe helplessly from the stands.
Break Point does not, however, help itself with the way in which it presents the sport. It seems to be pitching to people who know nothing about tennis: the basics of how games and sets work are explained twice within five minutes in episode one, and there’s almost no mention of tactics or technique. When footage of a match is shown, scores flash up but, since the concept of holding and breaking serves has been deemed too complex to go into, the numbers are often meaningless.
But the show’s point isn’t entirely about conveying why tennis itself is captivating. It has two objectives beyond that: introducing a new generation of potential stars, since Break Point’s arrival coincides with the end of dominant reigns by big names including Roger Federer and Serena Williams; and, as the title implies, to examine the psychological strain the sport puts on its players.
On the first point, we meet a lot of young, beautiful athletes who seem … nice. Matteo Berrettini of Italy, Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, Taylor Fritz of the US, Maria Sakkari of Greece – all of them allow cameras to follow them off-court and all of them are forthcoming and good-humoured. But characters to rival the personalities of yesteryear perhaps need more time to emerge. Indeed, a recurring motif is what an achievement it is for the young male players to beat the Spanish veteran Rafael Nadal, whose freakishly impressive stamina is lauded so often you wish this were a documentary about him instead.
The big scoop is access to Australian “bad boy” Nick Kyrgios, whose involvement in the 2022 Australian Open drives the opening episode. Notorious for profane on-court outbursts and for allegedly not making the most of his extraordinary talent, Kyrgios calmly solves the supposedly maddening enigma that is his temperament: he has struggled to cope with the expectations that followed his shock victory over Nadal (there he is again!) when Kyrgios was just 19. He finds leaving his loved ones to play tournaments across the world too lonely and arduous to commit to that way of life year-round. Under the pressure and scrutiny of an important match, the fact that he is a loud, emotional, argumentative young man does tend to become visible. In person, Kyrgios is very hard to dislike and so, when he and childhood best mate Thanasi Kokkinakis enjoy an unlikely run to the latter rounds of the men’s doubles in Melbourne, Break Point delivers a stirring against-the-odds tale.
After that, it feels as if it is striving for an answer to an impossible question. A succession of players try to describe the sensation of suddenly losing confidence in the middle of a match and not being able to recover: Berrettini comes nearest, with his talk of the fiendishly delicate balance between fear of losing and will to win, but nobody can nail it. The Spanish player Paula Bedosa, who has been as high as No 2 in the world, is the most courageously honest, explicitly referring to the effect tennis has on her as a mental health issue.
Such statements may well prompt reflection and reform within the sport, although the question of whether the things that cause tennis to jeopardise the wellbeing of its participants are the same things that make it compelling to a global audience is a difficult one. That problem seems to be more serious and significant in tennis than it is in other individual sports; Break Point’s problem is that can’t get us close enough to the action to find out why.