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Volume 21 No. 6
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‘Battle’ reborn

A rare sight on the big screen, tennis movies debut next month playing on ’70s nostalgia, hoping for international audience.

The film “Battle of the Sexes,” featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, depicts the events surrounding the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match in 1973.
Magazines and websites often churn out lists of the top sports movies of all time, a collection of cinema showcasing athletics ranging from ice hockey, track and field, karate, boxing, to a seemingly endless group of sports, big, small and obscure. There is one glaring exception, though — tennis, which as a sport is not only hard-pressed to land movies on these lists, but boast of any cinema at all (there are a handful of what can be charitably described as tennis movies).

Bleacher Report a few years ago published a top-100 sports movie list, and it did not contain a single yellow ball. Other than the occasional Serena Williams victory at the ESPYs or a Vogue spread on Roger Federer (editor Anna Wintour is a huge fan), tennis, at least in the U.S., is not part of pop culture, notwithstanding the next two weeks of the U.S. Open in New York.

And that is what makes the premieres next month of not one, but two tennis movies noteworthy: “Battle of the Sexes,” from Fox Searchlight about the famed gender-bender match in the midst of the feminist movement; and “Borg/McEnroe,” from Swedish filmmaker SF Studios, follows the rivalry between the Swede and the New Yorker. In fact, these two were not the only tennis projects under consideration.

“When we began to make our movie, there were three stories about the Battle of the Sexes match all trying to be made at the same time, and ours is the one that made it through,” said Jonathan Dayton, who with his wife, Valerie Faris, directed “Battle of the Sexes.” One of those projects was an HBO vehicle, he said, in which Paul Giamatti was to play Bobby Riggs.

“Battle of the Sexes,” which terminates at the conclusion of the famous 1973 Astrodome match, has even greater star power with Steve Carell as the aging huckster Riggs, and Emma Stone, fresh off her Oscar in “La La Land,” as the young rebel Billie Jean King (the actress is scheduled to attend the U.S. Open finals to promote the movie, which the WTA planned to screen for its players this past weekend in New York City).

Certainly, there is some sheer coincidence the two are coming out at the same time — both get their first public showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts next week. But why now?

Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King walk off the court after King’s straight set victory in the Astrodome in 1973.  Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Here opinions vary.

Faris, who with her husband directed “Little Miss Sunshine,” said tennis is having a moment. “Serena Williams, the Williams sisters and Federer, I feel like there has been again some of the most famous athletes in the world” coming from tennis, she said.

King herself opined that there is a nostalgia for the 1970s, which explains the Borg movie too (though the famous Wimbledon final breaks into 1980).

There is a larger trend, however, that could help movies about sports popular outside the U.S., and that is the increasing importance of the overseas market for films.

“With the DVD market drying up, it becomes more and more important to have overseas ancillary revenue to have these movies break even or make money,” said Jack Giarraputo, a film producer with credits including the Adam Sandler football comedies “The Waterboy” and “The Longest Yard.” “The budget would have to be kind of low on a tennis movie because I don’t think it is a big enough sport like football, but it does have the international audience.”

Still, he has his doubts.

“I don’t know what kind of international audience would be interested in a domestic story like the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs one, and I don’t know if we will be interested in the Scandinavian one, so you know, I think tennis is tough would be my guess.”

One of the producers and the screenwriter of “Battle of the Sexes,” both of whom are British, each argued the King-Riggs match, while an iconic piece of Americana, had wide appeal outside the U.S.

Christian Colson, who produced the film along with Danny Boyle and Robert Graf, pointed out that 90 million globally watched the match in 1973. And like any good sports movie, the film is about a lot more than just the particular sport, he said.

The idea for the film, he explained, came from a dinner table conversation with his wife about sexual politics, after which he began researching the epochal King-Riggs battle. The more he dug, he added, the more he found.

“There is a wonderful paradox at the center of this story; Billie Jean is able to be an outspoken advocate for her sex, for her gender, but not at that point in time for her sexuality,” he said. “She was able to fight so publicly and bravely for women’s rights, and yet was still struggling internally to find the strength to come out as a gay woman.”

The movie explores her lesbian relationship with Marilyn Barnett while King is still married.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy said he is fascinated with this story because King could have destroyed everything she was fighting for if the Barnett relationship emerged publicly. Meanwhile, Riggs is portrayed as more than a sexist pig but a multilayered character toiling through a major midlife crisis.

“It is so hard to make a sports movie that is more than about sport,” Beaufoy said. “I mean, this isn’t a tennis movie. If this was a tennis movie, any tennis fan would go and see it, and there aren’t that many of those.”

“Borg/McEnroe,” which features Shia LaBeouf as the young, mercurial Long Islander, would appear from its trailer to be more about just tennis. The studio behind the film declined repeated attempts over more than a month to discuss the film. A Sept. 8 release is planned in Sweden, and spring 2018 in the U.S. Unlike “Battle of the Sexes,” which had King and the late Riggs’ former coach consult, the Borg movie had neither principal advise.

“Completely unauthorized movie (not authorized by John or Bjorn),” wrote Gary Swain, McEnroe’s agent. The southpaw McEnroe himself has publicly complained that LaBeouf was spotted playing righty during filming (the trailer does show LaBeouf ready to serve as a lefty).

“Battle of the Sexes” took painstaking steps to ensure it captured the style of play, right down to how King bounced the ball. Riggs’ former coach Lornie Kuhle spent months with Carell teaching him not just tennis, but how Riggs played. Former pro Vince Spadea also advised on the film and stood in as a body double for Carell during some of the tennis scenes. King’s partner and former top doubles player, Ilana Kloss, also advised.

The makers of the movie insist it is about more than just sports.
The movie takes pains to use the correct equipment, clothes, and even tries to get correct how the players gripped the rackets.

“We watched the original match, and the play was so beautiful and a very different style of tennis, and we wanted to capture that old style of tennis playing,” the director Faris said. “It really was like a dance.”

The movie makes a pointed effort during the big match to not get the camera shots close to the players, with the idea that the viewer should experience it the way the at-home television audience did in 1973.

Fox Searchlight declined to comment on the marketing budget for the film, but Colson said he makes what he described as low-budget films. The film will debut Sept. 22 in a handful of theaters and hopefully pick up word of mouth and spread from there, he said.

“The market for movies of this sort generally is tough these days,” he said. “There is so much competition generally from other platforms in TV and such great drama being made on TV. So, I think there are only a handful of smaller dramatic films that are breaking through each year. It is tougher and tougher to be one of them.”

Sports movies usually are not major box office successes, said Will Chang, who has produced movies like “Million Dollar Arm,” “Invincible” and “McFarland USA.” “The market is flooded with them.” Using a sports analogy, he said mostly they are singles and doubles.

Sports movies must be inspirational, he added, which is why he is unsure the Borg movie will find a wide audience but the King-Riggs story might.

That, of course, would suit the makers of “Battle of the Sexes,” who surely weren’t expecting to find another tennis movie opposite them when they debuted, well enough at the Toronto festival.

“We are going to have a battle of the tennis movies,” director Dayton quipped.

His wife and co-director, Faris, quickly interjected, “We think there is room for more tennis movies.”