A Love Set: A Brief Look at Tennis on Film


“Jeu, Federer.” On Sunday morning, those two words became a popular refrain throughout the French Open’s championship match as Swiss ace Roger Federer beat surprise finalist Robin Soderling to finally secure the trophy that otherwise would have been recalled as his sole grail. Of course, this is the gent whose danseur-like elegance on the court once caused David Foster Wallace — himself a tennis player of collegiate repute — to class a “Federer Moment” right up there with the religious. We too were mesmerized as Federer dashed across the lovely burnt-orange clay of Paris’ Roland Garros, even if the opponent wasn’t Rafael Nadal (Soderling eliminated the Spaniard in an earlier round). With Wimbledon and its picture-perfect vistas just two weeks ahead, we had to know: What are the most memorable tennis moments in cinema?

First things first, it’s a shame that this handsome sport doesn’t have a documentary to match Hoop Dreams or When We Were Kings. Off in make-believe, tennis has also proven to be a rare if multi-faceted pastime. In M. Hulot’s Holiday, for one, Jacques Tati’s heterodox serve becomes a light-hearted excuse for slapstick. On the flipside, the soon-to-divorce parents in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale have a few backhanded exchanges during the introductory doubles match, their sons’ rooting interests neatly established by the net. It’s also been used as shorthand for simpler times (Vittorio de Sica’s 1971 Oscar-nabbing Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Ridley Scott’s A Good Year), as a sly meet-cute (Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), and as a seductive measure (Jack Nicholson & Susan Sarandon vs. Cher & Michelle Pfeiffer in The Witches of Eastwick).

As an onscreen career option, tennis players fair poorly: they’re either washed-up (Paul Bettany in Wimbledon, Luke Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums), homicidal (Ray Milland in Dial M For Murder, Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train), or both (Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point). Notable exceptions come in the form of two romcom femmes: Kate Hepburn back in the black-and-white day with Pat and Mike and Kirsten Dunst in Wimbledon.

Without further ado, though, here are our favorite tennis clips. Add the omitted in the comments.

Opening Volley: From Match Point by Woody Allen

Although Brooklyn-born, Allen’s fatalistic mantra here runs counter to old Dodger Branch Rickey’s famous line: “Luck is the residue of design.” Aided by Caruso’s mournful aria, this opening disclosure by Meyers’ cunning, social-climbing tennis instructor paints his path to success in an unmistakable noir shade.

Love-at-Thirty: From The Royal Tenenbaums by Wes Anderson

Decked out in Bjorn Borg’s old duds, The Baumer’s (Wilson) crack-up at Windswept Fields is a pure amusement and eventually leads to a truly sublime Anderson sequence: Richie’s meeting with Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) at the bus station, set in viscous slow-motion to Nico’s “These Days.” Anderson and Andrew Wilson provide the wry, matter-of-fact commentary.

What the Deuce?: From Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni

In the Italian auteur’s opus on Swinging London and the subjective nature of the image, David Hemmings plays the oft-imitated English shutterbug who investigates his own to be or not to be after snapping a perceived murder at the park. This mod adaptation of Argentine surrealist Julio Cortázar (who Jean-Luc Godard would also rejig a year later for his landmark “film found in a dump,” Week-End) concludes on a notoriously open-ended note when a band of merry pantomimes “play” tennis without the necessary impedimenta.

Game-Set-Mismatch: From Strangers On a Train by Alfred Hitchcock

Perhaps the most famous ground-stroker on film, Granger stars as a popular tennis player (for once!) who chances to meet psychopathic Robert Walker on a train. En route to their destinations, Walker proposes a trade-off: he’ll do away with Granger’s unwanted wife if the sportsman whacks his father. This stranger can’t be serious, is he? But when said wife turns up slain, Granger has to somehow slip both the police and Walker. Hitchcock, of course, winds the do-or-die suspense more tight than a steel racquet as Granger has to play in one final US Open match before fleeing. This is the film’s most well-known scene: Walker stares menacingly at the high-strung Granger, the other onlookers ticking off the seconds ‘til the inescapable face-off.