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Break Point Could Be a Game Changer for Tennis If It Weren't Living in the Past

Part 2 features compelling stars and even a brush with history, but the production schedule keeps the show from living up to its potential.
  • Ajla's Tomljanović in Break Point (Photo: Netflix)
    Ajla's Tomljanović in Break Point (Photo: Netflix)

    Netflix's Break Point returned June 20 with a second batch of to close out its first season, and with it comes a renewed frustration from tennis fans who see a ton of unrealized potential in a docuseries chronicling the men's and women's tennis tours beyond just the headline names. I'm one of those frustrated fans. Conceptually, a series like Break Point is exactly what the sport needs at exactly the right time. Structurally, the show plays like yesterday's news, inviting curious viewers into a set of stories that the sport itself has already blown past.

    The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tours are loaded with interesting stories, compelling personalities, petty feuds, and competition narratives that unfold across a season or longer. And yet it's almost impossible to get the mainstream sports media to cover tennis beyond its handful of legendary headliners and the occasional ascendant American talent.

    That's becoming more and more of a problem as that generation of legends finally release their vise grip on the sport's upper echelons. Roger Federer has retired, and Rafael Nadal has already announced that 2024 will be his last year on tour. Serena Williams' blockbuster final run at the 2022 U.S. Open is chronicled in this week's batch of Break Point episodes, only further underlining the need for the next generation of tennis stars to become household names. Young players like Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek have risen to the top of the rankings, but tennis is a sport built on rivalries, and the more that viewers know about the entire top stratum of players, the more they can invest in what's playing out on the court.

    Break Point's chief success is that executive producers James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin and showrunner Kari Lia selected their roster of subjects well. The episodes in Part 2 continue to focus on players like Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian player who's ascent to #2 on the women's tour in 2022 broke barriers for Arab players as well as players from Africa, while adding spotlight episodes for Swiatek (en route to her win at the 2022 U.S. Open) and American hopeful Frances Tiafoe (who bested Nadal on his way to a semifinal finish at that same Open).

    The series also continues its infatuation with Australian enfant terrible Nick Kyrgios, whose run to the Wimbledon finals last year encompassed everything that makes him such a compelling figure yet hard to fully condone: His electrifying on-court ability; his openness about mental illness and past suicidal thoughts; his berating of chair umpires and linespeople; the barely-veiled racist dog whistles from the press and occasionally opponents, as depicted in Break Point by Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas, who calls Kyrios a bully (true!) who takes an "uneducated" approach to the game (foul!). The show also touches on but doesn't investigate the charges of domestic abuse brought against Kyrgios by a former girlfriend that arose during Wimbledon, to which he later plead guilty.

    Kyrgios obviously offers a ton of material for a more typical sports documentary. But his historic inability to get to the top ranks of the men's tour, much less remain there, make him a glitzy outlier for what Break Point is otherwise trying to do, which is get the audience invested in the next generation of tennis stars. That requires a bit of a gamble on the part of producers when it comes to which players to feature, and that gamble doesn't always pay off. Maria Sakkari, a top 10 player from Greece who's as physically gifted as anyone on the women's tour, was coming off of a 2021 season where she made two Grand Slam semifinals. But the 2022 season was a letdown year for her, and beyond one episode in the first half of Break Point that centered her frustration, there wasn't much to say about her as the season wore on.

    Several players who were given spotlight episodes in Part 1 don't end up factoring in Part 2 at all for the simple fact that the back half of 2022 didn't go their way. Rising American star and Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz bombed out in the first round of the U.S. Open. Italian Matteo Berrettini wasn't able to capitalize on his semifinal run at the Australian Open (as depicted in Part 1) due to injury. Spaniard Paula Badosa and Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime were both featured in Part 1 and both had early exits at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

    This isn't atypical for the current state of tennis. The top 10s on both the men's and women's side are volatile places to be. It's also not exactly a bad thing. Disappointing results for the likes of Sakkari, Fritz, Badosa, and Auger-Aliassime made way for breakthrough tournaments for the likes of Cameron Norrie and Elena Rybakina at Wimbledon, and Casper Ruud and Caroline Garcia at the U.S. Open.

    Break Point shouldn't get dinged because the producers weren't able to predict every flourishing player when they set out to chronicle the 2022 season. They certainly chose right by following a player like Tiafoe on his run to the U.S. Open semis. They also struck gold in Australian player Ajla Tomljanović, whose ranking (hovering around the 40s for much of 2022) belies her talent, which has been formidable enough to draw the attention of no less a tennis great than Chris Evert. Tomljanović was featured in Part 1, in part due to her off-court romantic relationship with Berrettini. But chance and opportunity make her perhaps the most compelling figure in Part 2, as she faces Serena Williams in the third round of the U.S. Open and ultimately defeats her, ending the career of the greatest player in tennis history.

    The Serena Williams farewell tour was covered exhaustively in sports media, which is fitting. That Break Point covers the match from the perspective of Tomljanović gives us something we haven't seen before. We see the way Tomljanović must battle against the unprecedented atmosphere in the crowd, adoring Serena and as staunchly opposed to Tomljanović as any crowd has ever been. The Australian is also internally conflicted, torn between her desire to win and her love and admiration for this tennis icon. It's a fascinating perspective on a sports moment we'd seen from every other angle.

    That match is also a huge part of the problem, structurally, with Break Point. The centerpiece episode of this back half of the season is covering a match that happened 10 months ago. The tennis world has continued to roll on, and the players who Break Point have gotten us invested in haven't been a part of it. A knee injury has kept Tomljanović off the court for the majority of 2023. Anett Kontaveit, the former world #2 who we meet briefly on the show when she loses to Williams in the second round, announced her untimely retirement from the sport earlier this week.

    As go the stars of professional tennis, so goes the sport. Tennis desperately needs to create new stars to move into its next era as a sport. The 2023 season of Break Point is already filming, with six months of tennis narrative in the can, growing staler by the minute. Break Point can't help but be a frustrating experience because it's living in the past. The electric charge that might have accompanied Ons Jabeur's breakthrough year, Frances Tiafoe's magical U.S. Open, and Ajla's Tomljanović's brush with history is left to dissipate in the breeze of a 10-month delay. Narrow that window just by half and you have a more compelling TV experience. If episodes air even sooner than that, Break Point could be a game-changer for this next generation of tennis stars.

    Break Point Season 1 is streaming in its entirety on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Break Point, Netflix, Ajla Tomljanović, Frances Tiafoe, Iga Swiatek, Nick Kyrgios, Ons Jabeur, Serena Williams, tennis