Zero-Sum Game: Netflix’s Break Point Masters the Loneliness of High-Level Tennis | Tennis

northick Kyrgios is a professional tennis player, one of the best in the world. He has an adoring girlfriend, Costeen Hatzi, and a friendly sidekick named “Horse,” as well as thousands of fans in the stands to cheer on his winning shots. But it’s still not enough; probably, he never is at all. “Tennis is an extremely lonely sport,” he says. “That’s what I struggle with the most.”

For better or worse, Kyrgios looks set to garner a new load of fans with the release of the Netflix the Break Point series, a 10-part docusoap that follows the fortunes of the so-called “next generation” of tennis stars; the band of athletes in their twenties who have been challenging Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. All of these younger players speak the same language and share the same hopes and fears (the dream of winning a big title, the terror of not reaching their true potential). But the logic of their profession makes them antagonists, not friends. They talk to the camera but never to each other.

Maria Sakkari, one of the tennis stars featured in Break Point.
Maria Sakkari, one of the tennis stars featured in Break Point. Photography: Courtesy of Netflix

“I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis,” Andre Agassi confessed in his 2009 autobiography. He primarily hated it because it was “so damn lonely,” a repetitive routine of traveling and training interspersed with outbursts of combat. In team sports, the load is spread and the glory is shared. Even in boxing, Agassi said, at least you’re allowed to grab your opponent. “In tennis, however, you stand face to face with your enemy, you trade shots with him, but you never touch him or talk to him or anyone else.” His book made the sport sound positively existential. On the court, surrounded by spectators, linesmen and cameramen, each player remains locked inside his own private cell.

The key difference here is that Agassi is one of the game’s all-time greats: a former world number 1; the winner of eight Grand Slam titles, while Break Point players are still earning their spurs. They are like mortals who have camped on the slopes of Mount Olympus, looking at the gods with a mixture of envy and wonder. Matteo Berrettini is a large Italian who looks like a Latin lover of the central cast; Taylor Fritz, a rich kid from California who dreams of winning his house tournament.

In particular, there’s Kyrgios, tennis’ bad boy fuel; covered in tattoos and dripping with bling. The opening episode addresses his mental health issues and periods of heavy drinking (although it makes no mention of his 2021 domestic assault charge). “I worry about him every day,” says Kyrgios’ mother, Norlaila. “Because he’s been through some really horrible times.”

The opening episode of Break Point touches on Nick Kyrgios' mental health issues and periods of heavy drinking.
The opening episode of Break Point touches on Nick Kyrgios’ mental health issues and periods of heavy drinking. Photography: Courtesy of Netflix

For most of his rivals, life is likely to be even more complicated. Sport is a virtual plutocracy. Reward the best and starve the rest. The top 1% of players claim 60% of the annual prize money; those outside the top 100 barely earn enough to get by. Break Point players are the lucky ones because they are young, gifted and comfortably in the black. And yet, for some reason, these people still have a faint smell of panic. Maybe they know that time is ticking; they know that their number of possibilities is finite. “This is my moment,” says Berrettini as he advances to the semifinals of last year’s Australian Open. “It’s now or never.”

Most likely never. Failure and disaster are built into the DNA of tennis. This is probably what explains the existential creepiness of him. Ajla Tomljanović, the world number 43 of Australia, points out that each tournament is effectively a zero-sum game, a Darwinian free-for-all in which a field of 32 (or 64, or 128) entrants is quickly and painstakingly whittled down to just one. . She says, “If you’re not winning the event, you’re a loser every week. That’s when I think that tennis is really brutal. Keep going, with or without you.”

Tennis is really brutal.  Keep going, with or without you”, says Ajla Tomljanović.
Tennis is really brutal. Keep going, with or without you”, says Ajla Tomljanović. Photography: Courtesy of Netflix

All of which makes for a somber and exhilarating ride; a whirlwind of luxury hotels and brilliantly lit locker rooms and stadiums with absolutely nowhere to hide. Players follow the circus from Melbourne to Madrid, living out of suitcases and watching trashy movies on TV, like jaded tourists on a star-crossed cruise. They are living the dream. It looks like a nightmare.

Your own private cell.  A still from Break Point.
Your own private cell. A still from Break Point. Photography: Netflix

One wonders if this was part of the original writing. By focusing on a handful of twenty-something tennis stars, the show’s creators might have reasonably assumed they were filming a changing of the guard, witnessing the moment these princes became kings. Except that the sport is unpredictable, which is what makes it so attractive, and the best-laid plans have a habit of going awry. This, in retrospect, seems to be what happened to Break Point’s graduating class of 2022. History records that the Australian Open was ultimately won by an aging Nadal. Since then, teenager Carlos Alcaraz has been crowned the new world number 1. So the “next generation” was outclassed. His birthright has been denied. He is lost and alone and the tour has already moved on.

The first five episodes of Break Point premiere on Netflix on January 13. The final five episodes follow in June 2023.

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