Aidan Smith: Tennis and film are a bad match

Shia Labeouf as John McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe, the story of their 1980s rivalry
Shia Labeouf as John McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe, the story of their 1980s rivalry
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The scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen meets Diane Keaton for the first time happens on a tennis court. Allen brandishes a racket as masterfully as when he brandishes a hair-dryer later in the film and you might remember how the latter almost blows him off his feet. Then he goes on a rant about “left-wing, communist, Jewish homosexual pornographers”.

He plays the match, and while we glimpse him strike his shots we don’t see where the ball lands, for surely it leaves his beloved Manhattan and zings right out into the Hudson, scudding the Statue of Liberty in the midriff. And that’s it. Match over, scene over. We then get down to the serious and hilarious business of the budding romance, with Keaton giving him a lift in her car, driving like a maniac, parking like an idiot, which allows Allen to crack one of the film’s classic gags: “It’s okay, I can get a taxi to the kerb.”

This is all tennis gets in a classic movie and it’s all it should get in any movie. Tennis is purely in Annie Hall to illustrate Allen’s hopelessly unathletic physique. He probably has the dream of being a great player just like everyone else (if your correspondent could be merely good, never mind great, at just one sport it would be tennis). But it’s never going to happen (especially not in his scrawny, spindly case; I still have the dream) so he sticks tennis in his movie for a laugh.

The truth is that everyone pretending to play tennis on celluloid looks scrawny and spindly, even actors who thwack a racket to a reasonable club standard. It’s just one of these sports that cinema fails. And the others? Oh, you know: the rest. Cinema fails them all.

Tennis and film go together like arsenic and Robinsons Barley Water but the roll-call of all-time great sports movies, whatever the discipline, is a modest one. In the office the other day we could name the entire PoW football team in Escape to Victory (including Kazimierz Deyna, possessor of the best movie-star hair) but were unable to get anywhere near 11 must-see flicks.

Surely Raging Bull would be on the list? The biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta, if it had slipped from your mind, came slamming back into it with the death last week of the former world middleweight champion. It had slipped mine, and this despite having travelled to Glasgow to see it a week before it opened in Edinburgh.

At the time – 1980 – I thought director Martin Scorsese could do no wrong. And then he did wrong with the overblown Gangs of New York. Bizarrely, but brilliantly, that movie found a tiny part for the Edinburgh comedian Alex “Happy” Howden, and if you’re looking for a great sporting moment on film, how about Happy in Irvine Welsh’s Granton Star Cause reciting the 1972 Hibernian League Cup-winning team pressed against the fireplace while he enjoys a tender moment with his wife who’s wearing a strap-on.

Raging Bull was a brutal film about a brutal man, in the ring and out of it. Scorsese, and star Robert De Niro, made careers out of understanding male aggression and, not to damn them too much with faint praise, making a boxing bout look convincing on screen is no big ask if you know what you’re doing.

The action in boxing is tightly contained – it’s when you send a football down the wing for an actor to chase on pale, wan legs that sports films start to unravel. De Niro, the method actor, was perfectly willing to eat three cows a day for the necessary bulk-up. The crowd in boxing is usually in semi-darkness, reducing the familiar problem of not having enough extras. And slow-mo, which Raging Bull used, can cover up the unconvincing right hook, making it almost balletic.

For these reasons and others, such as the dramas of the escape from poverty that boxing often offered plus gangster interference, there have been any number of great pugilist features, especially if you go back to the film noir era and the likes of John Garfield in Body and Soul.

Google for boxing fan Andy Murray’s chosen sport, though, and the first thing you find is “Top Ten Tennis Movies of all Time … Uh, I Mean Top Five … Nope, Three.” I can only think of three tennis movies never mind top ones: Wimbledon, Match Point and, crikey, I mean two, although now there are two more: Borg vs McEnroe and Battle of the Sexes.

The problem with tennis – that is, the beauty of the game – is that it really is balletic. You cannot slow it down. All tennis acting is wooden, or Woody. Even the most ho-hum shot from a tennis superstar would be beyond the mimicking abilities of the thesp with the smoothest backhand.

Perhaps Battle of the Sexes, due soon, will be less reliant on convincingly flashing volleys given it’s about the match between Billie Jean King and a 55-year-old self-styled male chauvinist pig which was hardly a match at all – but I don’t understand why anyone would want to make it, given the excellent documentary on the subject just a few years ago. And how can Borg vs McEnroe, out now, hope to come close to that incredible fire-and-ice struggle, described by the tennis-loving wit Clive James as “the greatest match since Dan Maskell vs Henry VIII”?

Wimbledon was an appalling film. A romcom about the tennis circuit’s sassiest woman (American) and the man with the starchiest whites (English), it was faux-Richard Curtis. There’s only one thing worse than that and it’s an actual Curtis feature. The premise was completely preposterous. Brit battles through to Wimbers final? In the Tim Henman era that looked like the frothiest fantasy.

Match Point was just as improbable – Woody does tennis again, does London setting, does thriller – and not even Scarlett Johansson could save it. The actress at least would make a brilliant contribution to sport in the cinema later in Under the Skin, playing an alien sex-siren roaming Scotland in a white van luring men to a sticky death. What a way to go, especially if like one victim you were a Hibs fan in the strip worn by the team in the 5-1 Scottish Cup final thrashing by Hearts. I wish that had been me.

Meanwhile I await Andy: the Movie.