Matchmaking: Can Netflix's 'Break Point' work magic for tennis like it has for Formula 1?

'Break Point'
'Break Point' Copyright Canva Photo
By Theo Farrant
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From Roger Federer, Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. Netflix's new series on tennis doesn't have the help of the game's biggest names to sell the sport but it does provide a fascinating look at player's lives on and off-court.

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If you are a big tennis fan, you probably have heard by now of Novak Djokovic securing his record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title with his victory at the Australian Open on Sunday. 

This article is definitely for you then and also those who perhaps only have a passing interest in the game or sporting documentaries.

Break Point, Netflix's new 10-part behind-the-scenes documentary series, made by the producers of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, follows a selection of the world's best tennis players across a year on the ATP (men’s) and WTA (women’s) tours. 

Each episode focusses on an up-and-coming player, from the so-called "bad boy of tennis", Nick Kyrgios, to the Tunisian sensation and current 2nd highest ranked women's player, Ons Jabeur, as they compete for glory at the world's most illustrious tournaments. 

The show is as slick and well-edited as you'd expect from a Netflix original production, and it certainly offers a fascinating perspective on what it takes to operate at the top level of competitive international sport. But several questions remain on everyone's mind: 

Does Break Point match up to the hugely successful and ground-breaking Drive to Survive in terms of thrills, spills and drama?

And, perhaps more importantly for the game's governing body, will the series attract new interest in the sport that's for decades been dominated by the recently retired Roger Federer and Serena Williams, and the ever present duelling duo of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The Serbian's emotional victory at the Australian Open on Sunday means the pair now share 22 Grand Slam titles as they fight for the honorific title of calling themselves the 'Greatest of All Time.'

A recipe for success?

Formula 1/2022 Formula One World Championship Limited
F1 drivers stand on the grid for the national anthem ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on 20 March 2022 in BahrainFormula 1/2022 Formula One World Championship Limited

Since its release in 2019, Drive to Survive has become one of Netflix's most popular and critically acclaimed documentary series. Its success has led some to say that it's even "saved Formula 1". 

The fast-moving series excellently pieces together F1's on-track action and off-track drama, from the fiery crashes to the internal political manoeuvres, and helped introduce a whole new audience of non-sporting fans to motor racing.

Just look at the statistics: 

In 2018, F1 viewership in the US was around 547,000. After the launch of the docuseries, it increased by 18% to 672,000. By 2022, viewership had risen to 1.21 million viewers, a significant increase. ESPN also noted that the biggest increases in “key demographics” were among young viewers and women. 

Given the enormous success of Drive to Survive, it's no surprise that Netflix and the show's production team have tried to create similar excitement with tennis.

An insight into the brutal world of tennis

Charles Krupa/AP Photo
Nick Kyrgios, of Australia, reacts as he plays Karen Khachanov, of Russia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships on Sept. 6, 2022Charles Krupa/AP Photo

The first episode of Break Point focuses almost entirely on Nick Kyrgios, the wild child of tennis, as he competes in the 2022 Australian Open. Love him or hate him there's no denying that he's fascinating to watch and it's no surprise that Netflix chose him to launch the series. 

Despite the 27-year-old Australian being known for his fiery temper and potty mouth towards umpires, the episode presents a much softer and more vulnerable image of Kyrgios. While his on court intensity is still present, off the court he comes across as a likeable and charismatic character, as he opens up about the mental stress, fatigue and loneliness he experiences as a tennis player.

He talks about the huge expectation he felt on his shoulders from the age of 19, after beating 22-time Grand Slam winner Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. 

"I went from nobody knowing who I was to people camping outside my house," Kyrgios tells the Netflix cameras in a sit down interview. "From that day forward the expectation for me to be the next big thing was massive." 

"Racism was just another unnecessary thing to deal with, it hurt," added Kyrgios. "The first four or five years of my career were just so chaotic and Daniel (Horsfall Kyrgios' manager) could just see my mental health declining every week." 

This peek into his inner thoughts and struggles evokes a sense of empathy, to the point that when the series depicts he and his long-time friend Thanasi Kokkinakis experience an unlikely run to the final of the men's doubles at the Australian Open, you're fully rooting for him to succeed. 

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At its core, the series is an exploration of two things: what it means to win and what it takes to win. Break Point truly shines when it delves beyond the surface of tennis and into the intricacies of the mental fortitude required to to excel in such a demanding and brutal sport. Through confessionals and candid footage, it paints an honest portrayal of the struggles players face in financially sustaining their careers and achieving glory in a sport where success is scarce. 

Does the series deliver on all fronts?

Kelly Barnes/AP Photo
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur reacts to losing a point to Czech Republic's Linda Noskova during their semifinal match at the Australian OpenKelly Barnes/AP Photo

While Break Point excels in exploring the challenging terrain of mental health in tennis, the series is certainly not without its flaws. 

One of the reasons Drive to Survive was so enjoyable to watch from start to finish was its ability to create captivating season-long narratives that conclude in a satisfying and enthralling manner. However, Break Point seems to lack this same quality entirely. The series lacks a cohesive narrative, with its episodes feeling self-contained and a little repetitive.

A possible reason for this could be the decision to release the show in two parts - there are currently only five episodes available to stream, with the second set of episodes premiering in June. This decision kind of feels like you're being forced to watch a movie in two parts, and you have to wait 6 months to find out how it ends.

Another potential drawback of the series for some viewers may also be its lack of star power. 

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While most casual tennis watchers would have heard of Nick Kyrgios, the rest of Break Point's subjects, including Félix Auger-Aliassime, Paula Badosa, Matteo Berrettini, Taylor Fritz, Casper Ruud and Maria Sakkari, while equally talented, are much lesser-known. 

If you're expecting to see in depth interviews with the likes of the previously mentioned tennis gods Nadal, Djokovic and Williams, then you may be disappointed to read that they're hardly included. The new poster-boy and world number 1 Carlos Alcaraz's absence from the series is also definitely felt (although he could potentially appear in later seasons). 

Overall though, the show is definitely worth a watch, whether you're a diehard tennis fan or just someone looking to find out more about the sport.

The Netflix Curse?

Tennis fans will have followed the fortunes of their favourites at the season opening Grand Slam Down Under but notably, as many pointed out online, none of the stars of Netflix's Break Point made it through to the second week in Melbourne, ie. the quarter final stage.

With such a poor showing, from the likes of Maria Sakkari, Ons Jabeur, Taylor Fritz, Casper Ruud and Matteo Berrettini (many of whom were tipped to win the tournament), the hashtag ‘NetflixCurse’ has trended on Twitter. 

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The Netflix UK & Ireland Twitter account stated last week that the supposed curse is purely a coincidence, in response to a tweet on the topic. 

With the somewhat surprising exits of the aforementioned, there may be concerns about what fate serves up among the players set to be featured in the second part of Break Point, due for release this year. 

Maybe Netflix should consider rebranding the series as a horror?

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