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Review: Without top stars, 'Break Point' leans on vibes to introduce sport’s next wave
The first five episodes of Netflix’s anticipated successor to F1: Drive to Survive wraps a cursory entrée into the tennis world around a cool sensibility, but a deeper insight is often lacking.
Published Jan 10, 2023
WATCH: Nadal's absence from Break Point was felt as Netflix aimed to tell the story of the 2022 season.
A highly-anticipated successor to F1: Drive to Survive, Break Point, which drops its first five episodes on Netflix January 13, promised a never-before-seen look at the highs and lows of the grueling 11-month tennis season—or at least that’s how it was pitched to its participants.
“You get so much more of grasp of what’s happening, compared to what most fans typically see, which is just us coming out on court and either winning or losing,” explained Ajla Tomljanovic, who stars in the docuseries alongside then-boyfriend Matteo Berrettini.
“We’ll do some press,” she told me, “but otherwise, that’s it. There’s so much more involved.”
Viewers do get (a bit) more as cameras follow Tomljanovic through a brutal Australian Open campaign, notably catching her deep disappointment following a first-round loss to co-star Paula Badosa and lightly teasing some trouble in paradise with Berrettini. But for those who followed the 2022 tennis season—or any of the sport’s post-pandemic era—with any modicum of intensity, Break Point presents much of what we already know in a blue-gray tinted, prestige-streamer package.
Though each episode spotlights two members of a seemingly endless cast—the preview for Break Point’s second set of episodes featured, among many others, Carlos Alcaraz, Iga Swiatek, and Stefanos Tsitsipas—the production team appears in overdrive trying to fill the void left by those who did not directly participate. Rafael Nadal, who won the first two major tournaments of 2022, casts an especially large shadow over the men’s tour narrative, leading to the questionable decision to cede swaths of the Australian Open arc to his unnarrated match highlights. His absence thwarts the series to the end as Félix Auger-Aliassime and Casper Ruud's appearances devolve into both trying and failing to conquer an off-screen dragon at Roland Garros.
Also missing from the tapestry is Novak Djokovic, whose deportation from Australia is recapped in the cold open to Berrettini and Tomljanovic’s episode. The news is tragicomically spun as an opportunity for the former or some other young contender to stake a definitive claim against the tour’s Big 3 (Spoiler Alert: it isn’t).
Without either Nadal or Djokovic—or even Ashleigh Barty, who gets only the briefest nod in the wake of her shock retirement—Break Point becomes a meditation on those inhabiting the purgatory between contender and champion. When introducing a new character, journalist Courtney Nguyen is frequently heard delivering variations on a frustrating theme: “They’re a talented player, but are yet to win a big title.”
While that assessment often and unsatisfyingly remains true—for some by episode’s end, for most to this day—the series isn’t without its triumphs. Taylor Fritz’s BNP Paribas Open victory is vividly depicted, capturing his unexpected Finals Day ankle injury and coach Paul Annacone’s pleas to forfeit against Nadal. Fritz famously soldiers on to snap the Spaniard’s winning streak and win the biggest title of his career. Ons Jabeur is another breakout star, effortlessly charismatic and comfortable on camera as she surges to win a history-making first WTA 1000 title in Madrid.
These moments are unfortunately too far and few between as producers seem more devoted to quieter moments, to showing players at their most ok.
“I know that everything I filmed was completely how it is, and that’s why I’m proud of whatever airs about me,” insists Tomljanovic, who had yet to screen her episode and was more eager to see her US Open “glow-up” in Part 2. “It’s hard to fake anything we’re filming in the moment. You can’t be not yourself 15 minutes before going on court to play Serena Williams. You may have a camera in your face, but that’s the last thing you’re thinking about in those high-pressure situations.”
The players indeed got real when they could. Badosa and Nick Kyrgios open up about their struggles with mental health: the former ponders an extended hiatus after a defeat at home in Spain, Kyrgios openly considers retirement. Does the blame, then, belong with those in the edit bay, with those who smoothed out these complex athletes' more jagged edges?
Perhaps Break Point is not meant to be hard-hitting in scope. Real tennis heads know the sport plays host to an infinite number of intriguing personalities, and don’t necessarily need a docuseries for proof. If Break Point serves strictly as scaffolding, to entice the general public into the big tennis tent, it can only be deemed a success—even if the final product leaves some longing for more of the circus.