DUBAI: For those with just a passing interest in tennis, a few current players are known by all: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Williams. Serial winners whose stories are long, long lists of successes with a few blips.
But what about the players just below them? The top 50 in the men’s or women’s games? They too are elite athletes at the top of their chosen field. But, as Netflix’s new docuseries “Break Point” stresses several times, their stories are basically the inverse: long, long lists of failures with a few successes. They’ll win more matches than they lose over the course of a season — and make plenty of money doing it — but actually reaching tournament finals or winning titles? Well, that’s very rare. Every week of the season, someone wins. But that means everyone else loses. And losing, for people who’ve dedicated their lives to becoming ridiculously good at one thing, is hard. Exhausting, even.
“Break Point” follows a group of twentysomething players hoping to step into the shoes of the previous generation’s champions. They are all, it’s worth reiterating, incredible tennis players. And what the show makes clear is that it’s rarely their talent or their work ethic that prevents from making that step up, but the demons in their heads — the self-doubt, the nerves, the fear of potential unfulfilled or of a heavy defeat before a global audience of millions. Oh, and the loneliness.
What the show does really well is to give viewers some sense of that isolation — not just on the court, but away from it too. As women’s world number 35 Ajla Tomljanovic says, if they’re going to be successful, tennis players have to be put themselves first at all time. That makes it hard to maintain a relationship of any sort. The constant hopping between sterile, same-y hotel rooms and the many hours of repetitive tasks mean that life is more tedious grind than glamor.
The show also immerses us in their constant tension between needing to be a little on-edge while still feeling relaxed enough to perform at their best. It’s a fine line. But elite sport is always a matter of fine lines — success or failure measured in millimeters and milliseconds. And the common thread between all the athletes in “Break Point” is that their toughest opponent is usually themselves.