It’s not just about the Nadals, Federers, and Djokovics.
Netflix’s new tennis docuseries Break Point was produced by Box to Box Films, the production company responsible for Formula 1: Drive to Survive, as well as upcoming unscripted shows about golf and the Tour de France. Box to Box has found a niche in making compelling, behind-the-scenes portraits of sports that are either underrepresented or misunderstood in American media. Drive to Survive, for example, is widely credited as popularizing Formula 1 in the United States, leading to the addition of two new races in Miami and Las Vegas.
Other sports, such as tennis, are surely hoping that they can replicate the success F1 has had by authorizing their own Netflix series. While F1 was little known in the U.S., and thus could simply present its most compelling storylines and charismatic figures as fodder for the show, tennis is a little different. Virtually everyone with even a casual interest in sports has likely heard of Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal and maybe even Novak Djokovic. Tennis doesn’t have a popularity problem. Instead, it has a star problem.
As people like Serena, Roger Federer, and (probably in the not-too-distant future) Nadal step away from the game, the sport is left with a dearth of big names that can draw spectators to events and create compelling rivalries. Thus, Break Point deliberately chooses not to focus on the brightest stars of today. Instead, it profiles rising stars and lesser-known players such as Nick Kyrgios, Matteo Berrettini, Taylor Fritz, Paula Badosa, Ons Jabeur, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Casper Ruud.
Interestingly, the series also portrays today’s legendary tennis figures as almost outright villains. Not in a slanderous way intended to ruin anyone’s reputation, but rather in the sense that so many young tennis players with heart and talent have their dreams dashed again and again by people who have been dominating the sport for well over a decade. Indeed, this narrative is currently playing out in real-time, as all of the players mentioned above have either withdrawn or lost during the first four rounds of competition in the 2023 Australian Open.
As we take a look at the storylines for some of these younger athletes, we’ll see how Break Point’s goal is an ambitious one: to move the sport of tennis into a new era.
The best episode of Break Point thus far might be its first one, entitled “The Maverick.” It profiles Nick Kyrgios, who is probably the best-known of any players featured in the series. Kyrgios is a divisive figure in the world of tennis, if not just a flat-out unpopular one. He is a part-time player with no trainer or coach. He is prone to childish tantrums on the court, sometimes involving smashed rackets and profanity-filled tirades. But Kyrgios has loads of raw talent, having beaten all three of “the big three” (Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic). He also possesses a tremendous amount of charisma when he plays, which makes any Kyrgios match an entertaining one, if nothing else.
Break Point spends a lot of time attempting to humanize Kyrgios, partly by showing him in scenes with his girlfriend of two and a half months. Predictably, his paramour defends him and claims he’s misunderstood. It’s not an entirely convincing argument, but it does add some complexity to a player previously thought of by many as only a hotheaded jerk. The episode shows Kyrgios losing in a singles match to Daniil Medvedev. As Kyrgios’ game falls apart, he gives in to his impulsivity and anger, at one point berating the chair umpire.
While one might expect Kyrgios’ storyline to end there, as a demonstration of how the inability to control emotions can doom a tennis player, it instead ends triumphantly with Kyrgios winning a doubles match. This choice reveals the primary goal here, which is to make the most talented member of tennis’ new class of players seem like a guy who just needs a friend. The episode’s attempts to make us sympathize with Kyrgios are essentially designed to promote him as a player, without just ignoring all the negative things we might already know about him. While the episode may not make everyone fall in love with its subject, it does introduce us to the potential leader of tennis’ new wave of stars, a leader who is dynamic, talented, and endlessly entertaining.
Episode 3, “California Dreaming,” is certainly the most Rocky-esque of Break Point’s episodes. Fritz is an American player who has chill surfer bro vibes. He’s more soft-spoken and thoughtful than Kyrgios, the kind of player one could easily imagine scooping up the fans of retired nice guy Roger Federer. But standing in Fritz’s way is the icon himself, Rafael Nadal. While the show never has anything negative to say about Nadal, it does frame him as a sort of evil empire standing in Fritz’s path. As an audience, we like Fritz and want him to succeed. And succeed he does. In dramatic fashion, he overthrows Emperor Nadal to win Indian Wells.
By pitting Fritz against Nadal, Break Point is emphasizing the changing of the guard in tennis. It’s an interesting example of how perspective in storytelling is everything. Follow Michael Jordan’s attempts to win another NBA Championship in 1998, and we’ll likely find ourselves rooting for MJ to solidify his status as the best to ever play the game. But follow the Utah Jazz that same year and we’ll be devastated that the underdogs have lost yet again, never to experience the triumphant ecstasy of a championship. Fritz’s storyline is likely the first time we’ve ever seen Nadal portrayed as an antagonist in pop culture, proving again how much Break Point wants us invested in tennis’ next generation.
Paula Badosa is the number two ranked women’s tennis player in the world when we are first introduced to her in Episode 4 of Break Point as she dances to “La Cucaracha.” This happy intro, and the quick overview of Badosa’s status as a successful woman with a model boyfriend, contrasts with what’s to come, as we learn that she struggles with the unhealthy and sometimes unbearable amount of stress and pressure that come with being one of the best tennis players in the world. Badosa decides to publicly voice what she’s going through, sharing with the press her battles with anxiety and depression.
In the same episode, we are also introduced to Tunisian player Ons Jabeur, who comes from a more traditional culture and resisted expectations that she would quit tennis to become a housewife. Although she seems to desire a child one day, she’s acutely aware that she may have to sacrifice her love of tennis in order to do it. Aside from the time it takes to birth and help raise a newborn, the physical stress of child labor can take a serious toll on athletes’ bodies.
By pairing these two storylines together, Break Point is showing how life issues outside of tennis can impact the game and vice versa, especially for women. While in the past this might’ve been an issue largely ignored or quieted in the world of competitive sports, it is now a frequent topic of conversation. Naomi Osaka, for example, withdrew from the 2021 French Open, citing mental health issues. She also announced this year that she would be stepping away from the game in order to have a child.
Osaka and other female athletes are drawing attention not just to the psychological toll of competitive sports but also to considerations of life and work balance. While it’s possible for men to continue playing sports throughout a partner’s pregnancy, that option is obviously not available to pregnant women. Break Point is highlighting what these players can do outside just playing the game of tennis, which is to spark public conversations about where we place sports in the context of life itself. The old guard might’ve been reluctant to discuss such issues, but tennis’ new stars are willing to shatter the status quo both on and off the court.
Jonathon Norcross is a feature writer for Collider. He worked in post-production for over a decade on projects for Showtime, TLC, Netflix, ESPN, Vice, The New York Times, and PBS, among others. He’s a co-host of the “Scenes From” podcast and contributed to the book “Changeology,” published by Simon & Schuster. He lives in beautiful Saratoga Springs, New York and is an unrepentant Yankees fan.