At the start of the second episode of “Break Point,” Netflix’s new documentary series about the professional tennis tour, Spanish star Paula Badosa explains that sport “is a drug” — an addiction we’ll learn later in the series. does not always serve it well.
But as physically and mentally draining as tennis can be, the burning ambition to compete and the adrenaline rush of playing in front of 15,000 people usually outweighs everything for the world’s elite players.
Now the sport’s guardians are hoping the same high will result in a new legion of fans who have barely, if ever, watched a game before.
Created by the same team that helped boost Formula 1’s popularity with ‘Drive to Survive’, the release of ‘Break Point’ on Friday coincides with the start of the Australian Open and a potential transition season in the sport.
Roger Federer is gone, having officially retired in September. Serena Williams played her final match at last year’s US Open after announcing an ‘evolution’ away from tennis. Rafael Nadal starts 2023 as the all-time Grand Slam king with 22 major titles, but turns 37 in June and is just 4-7 since pulling out of the Wimbledon semi-finals last week. last year with an injury.
At this point, the only one of the remaining legends who looks set to squeeze more out of his prime is Novak Djokovic, who is back in Australia for his 10th title there after the bizarre events of last January when he was detained and then sent off. . because he failed to meet the country’s COVID-19 vaccination guidelines for entry. (In November, he was granted a visa to play in 2023 after Australia scrapped a rule requiring all international travelers to be vaccinated).
While none of these all-time greats are featured in “Break Point,” they are of course a big part of the narrative. Nadal, in particular, casts a massive shadow over the first five episodes, which take Australian viewers to Roland Garros – the two events where Nadal won the title last year. The rest of the episodes, covering the second half of 2022, will drop in June before Wimbledon.
From a broader institutional perspective, tennis has dreaded the day when its most bankable and beloved stars will no longer be able to deliver the sport to viewers and ticket buyers around the world.
In that sense, it gave the creators of “Break Point” an easy framing for creating characters from players that most casual or non-tennis fans probably wouldn’t have heard of: who’s next, and what does it really take to get to the top?
Viewers who might get the impression that tennis is a distinguished country club sport will certainly come away with a very different impression of the anxiety, loneliness and difficult health choices players must make as they pursue their dreams.
“I’ve been training my whole life for this moment,” says American Taylor Fritz as he ponders whether to take to court against Nadal in the Indian Wells final last year, even though the doctors told him he was at risk of long-term foot injury. and his coaches implore him not to play. “If I retired, I would think about this forever.”
In that regard, “Break Point” works exactly as intended, crafting personalities and storylines that will likely feel more interesting and fresh to new fans than those with an in-depth knowledge of the sport.
What “Break Point” might lack, at least compared to “Drive to Survive,” is conflict and rivalry. Tennis is a brutal sport in so many ways, and the show clearly shows how exhausting it is for most players to lose every week but keep showing up at the next stop on the tour – but the players themselves. memes might be too nice.
Even the first episode, which revolves around tennis bad boy Nick Kyrgios and his career-long struggle to manage massive expectations, falls short of the numerous run-ins on and off the court he has had with competitors. over the years.
About as nearly as the series comes to fruition, a conflict arises in the fifth episode when young Canadian star Felix Auger-Aliassime meets Nadal at Roland Garros, putting coach Toni Nadal in an awkward position between the nephew that he coached for his first 16 Grand Slam titles. and his current student. But even Uncle Toni’s controversial handling of the situation is generally ignored by the players themselves, leaving viewers wondering if the storyline really went anywhere.
While there are plenty more nits for tennis fans to choose from with the series, “Break Point” will almost certainly bring new eyes to tennis, which is why the men’s and women’s tours, the four Grand Tournaments Slam and a group of more than a dozen players have given Netflix meaningful access to their lives on and off the pitch.
If these new viewers (and current fans) tune in to the Australian Open, here are some scenarios they’ll likely see.
Can Novak Djokovic match Rafael Nadal with 22 Grand Slams?
After being unable to play at the US Open due to his unvaccinated status, Djokovic cruised through the end of the 2022 season, winning 18 of 19 matches, including the year-end ATP Finals. Djokovic looked the favorite for the Australian Open during a warm-up in Adelaide but suffered a minor hamstring injury which could prove problematic.
Can Nadal survive a brutal draw?
After last year’s miracle title in Australia, we learned never to count it. But beyond injuries and form issues, Nadal has also had a very difficult path, including a dangerous opener against talented Brit Jack Draper, 21, who is already world No. 40 and expected to be in the top 20. by the end of this year. Beyond that, he might have to get through rising American Brandon Nakashima in the second round, Frances Tiafoe in the round of 16 and Daniil Medvedev in the quarter-finals.
If not Iga Swiatek, then who?
Dominant n°1 among women, Swiatek is the favorite. Although it has proven itself time and time again on hard courts, including at the US Open, it is a little more vulnerable in the faster conditions typical of Melbourne. But there is no clear second tier in the women’s game at the moment, meaning the draw could open for any of the 25 or 30 players to make a final. One player to watch is American Jessica Pegula, who has become very consistent at Grand Slams and beat Swiatek in a warm-up.
Who is missing ?
Unfortunately for ‘Break Point’ fans, two of the show’s stars – Ajla Tomljanovic and Badosa – had to pull out of the tournament due to injuries. Tomljanovic and her then-boyfriend Matteo Berrettini were the focus of the show’s second episode while Badosa opens up about mental health issues in the fourth episode centered on the Madrid Open in his hometown. Last week, two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would not compete in 2023 because she was pregnant. But the most disappointing defeat of the tournament from a competitive point of view is that of the men’s number 1 Carlos Alcaraz. Since his decisive Grand Slam title at the US Open, the 19-year-old has struggled with injuries including a leg problem he developed in a recent practice match.
Who is ready to win their first major?
Fans of American Taylor Fritz must have loved what they saw of the 25-year-old in the season-opening United Cup where his big serve fired and he notched several quality wins. Up to world No. 9, Fritz showed he could compete and sometimes beat the best on the regular circuit. He came close to making it to the Grand Slam but has yet to close the deal. The draw is shaping up well for him to make a semi-final here, where he would likely draw Djokovic. If she can keep her spirits up and play with discipline, the conditions are right for Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka to break through.
Follow USA TODAY sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken