Fifteen to love: the best tennis scenes in cinema – ranked! | Movies

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15. Wimbledon (2004)

An odd, rather contrived attempt to weld a Richard Curtis-type Anglo-American romcom to a tennis movie, demonstrating that maybe a whole film about tennis is just a bit too much and it’s better just to have one or two tennis scenes. Paul Bettany is the has-been Brit player who flukes a wildcard at Wimbledon, meets-cute with a rising US superstar played by Kirsten Dunst and they fall in love. As ever with tennis films, the difficulty is suspending disbelief that Bettany and Dunst are hitting and returning actual shots, never mind playing to championship level.

14. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

An example of how the tennis scene in a movie is traditionally ironised or played for laughs. Grinning old devil Daryl Van Horne, played by Jack Nicholson, has a doubles match with the three local women. He’s paired with Jane (Susan Sarandon), opposite the testy duo of Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Alexandra (Cher), and he messes with their heads by making the ball hover in the air, or buzz back and forth in a speded-up rally.

13. Match Point (2005)

Woody Allen loves tennis, although this rather stately movie with unconvincing British idioms isn’t his best tennis moment (see No 4). Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the tennis coach in London, inveigling his way into the smart set. The best scene is the opening dream-like sequence of the ball drifting back and forth across the screen while the narrative voiceover muses about the arbitrariness of fate when the ball hits the net and could fall either side.

12. Bee Movie (2007)

In this wacky animation, Jerry Seinfeld voices a bee called Barry B Benson who gets stuck to a fuzzy green tennis ball and then gets hit back and forth by heedless humans in a match while doing the classic Seinfeldian squeaky-high hysterical voice: “Aarrrgh! What is this?” Animation, with its seamless blend of long shot and close-up, solves the problem that live-action film often has with tennis not looking sufficiently dramatic.

11. Bridesmaids (2011)

Tennis here in the traditional movie comedy mode: as full-on aggression under an unconvincing mask of politeness – an interesting demonstration of how cinema shows tennis as the class war by other means (see No 1). Kristen Wiig plays the uptight underachiever Annie who is asked to be a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding and takes an instant dislike to another bridesmaid, the snobby blueblood Helen, played by Rose Byrne. They two women face off on the tennis court, in a doubles match, openly and unbecomingly exulting when the ball hits the opponent’s body painfully.

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10. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Perhaps Luke Wilson never again had a role as good as the tennis pro Richie Tenenbaum in his John McEnroe headband, the unhappiest of the massively dysfunctional Tenenbaum clan. Deeply and secretly in love with his adoptive sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Richie goes to pieces in the middle of a match when she shows up in the crowd of spectators with her new fiance, Raleigh (Bill Murray). Richie starts throwing shots, taking his sneakers and socks off, and staring miserably into space. Tellingly, director Wes Anderson shows the match in terms of its TV coverage, which solves or skirts around the perennial film-grammar problem of how to film a tennis rally. The shot-reverse-shot approach is usually disconnected and unconvincing and movies do not usually have the leisure for an extended baseline shot to show the game play in a unitary space, as in BBC Wimbledon.

9. Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Emma Stone and Steve Carell slug it out as Billie Jean King and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in this sports movie based on the real-life 1973 tennis match between these two players, each with something to prove. A pair of very good performances, and Stone probably wins on screen, just as King won on the court, with a performance that was subtler and more vulnerable than Carell’s comedy turn.

8. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970)

Director Vittorio De Sica’s film version of the classic novel by Giorgio Bassani responds to the dreamily innocent, almost pastoral image of tennis, rather than its potential for bathos and comedy. In the late 1930s, in prewar Ferrara, Italy, a cultured and sophisticated Jewish family, the Finzi-Continis, have a huge house and magnificent garden with a tennis court. Excluded from the local tennis club by the fascists and antisemites, the family invite people to play in their garden. It becomes a symbol of their poignant denial, a delusional Edenic enclave into which they retreat as the Nazi threat closes in. The final disturbing sequence shows the beautiful daughter Micòl (Dominique Sanda) and brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) playing tennis in eerie slo-mo.

7. King Richard (2021)

It is rare for the movies simply to show a tennis match without irony or comedy and invite the audience to be caught up in the drama, just as they would in real life. Will Smith won an Oscar for his role as Venus and Serena Williams’s formidable dad-slash-coach, Richard, who inspired and terrorised them to triumph. The film is overshadowed now by Will Smith’s notorious slapping of Chris Rock at the award ceremony, but it is a decent film, especially the scene showing Venus’s professional debut at just 14 against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, in which she wins a moral victory, losing only in the face of her opponent’s outrageous gamesmanship tactics (see No 1).

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6. Blow-Up (1966)

One of the strangest tennis scenes in film history, from a key text of the swinging 60s, Michelangelo Antonioni’s metaphysical mystery Blow-Up. In a London park, David Hemmings’s groovy photographer accidentally snaps a possible murder – a suspicion eerily confirmed later in the dark room when the picture is enlarged, or blown up. A woozy hallucination of existential paranoia spins off from this unsolved and insoluble affair, finally returning the photographer to the park and the tennis court. There, he watches a white-faced mime troupe play pretend tennis without a ball, perhaps symbolising the absurd contest that all life is: a zero-sum game with an implacable opponent.

5. The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Noah Baumbach uses tennis as an arena for anxiety, rivalry and dysfunction, the toxicity arising when, in what is supposed to be a friendly game, players can’t resist gloating and sneering at winning shots. The film begins with failing novelist Bernard, played by Jeff Daniels, playing doubles tennis, teamed with his elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg). Bernard is up against his writer wife Joan (Laura Linney), whose literary career is outpacing his, and is paired with their younger son, Frank (Owen Kline). The family tensions are unbearable and Joan will later have an affair with Ivan, the tennis pro, played by William Baldwin.

4. Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s standup comic Alvy Singer may be a skinny intellectual but he likes his tennis and plays with his worldly buddy Rob (Tony Roberts) on an indoor New York court, although Rob yearns for the outdoor tennis of sunny California. It’s here that they have a tennis double date with Annie and a friend – with ditzy Annie, played by Diane Keaton, clearly knocking her shots out and no one much caring. The tennis itself is played with relaxed briskness and Allen shrewdly finds the drama and comedy in the match’s immediate aftermath, when Annie strikes up a nervy conversation with Alvy and then gives him a hair-raising ride in her VW Beetle.

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3. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Tennis is an apt metaphor for the tense, murderous duel between two strangers in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel. Farley Granger plays unhappily married tennis pro Guy, who finds himself having to humour a creepy, talkative stranger called Bruno, played by Robert Walker, on a train journey. Bruno suggests an untraceable murder swap – killing Guy’s wife, who the papers have revealed he wants to divorce, in return for Guy killing Bruno’s hated father. Guy hurries away but Bruno swipes his cigarette lighter which has a tennis racket motif, proving their connection and giving him a hold over Guy. He kills Guy’s wife and then stalks Guy, showing up at a match where his smirking face stays still as the other spectators’ heads turn left then right during a rally. Later, a match of Guy’s is intercut with Bruno desperately fishing out the lighter, which he has dropped down a drain.

2. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

The eccentric Monsieur Hulot, played by Jacques Tati in this French comedy classic, goes to a seaside vacation resort, where he intends to play tennis. He buys a racket from a woman behind a counter who, from her seated position, vaguely attempts to demonstrate the forehand stroke and then a serve. Hulot copies her move pedantically on court, dressed in his hat, ill-fitting jacket and long trousers – a bizarre arm-pumping gesture before every serve which nonetheless endows his shots with sensational accuracy and force. Our bumbling hero becomes a tennis champ, winning handsomely against three opponents.

1. School for Scoundrels (1960)

Robert Hamer’s classic Brit comedy is inspired by Stephen Potter’s sly Gamesmanship books about one-upmanship and it has cinema’s greatest tennis scene between nice guy chump Ian Carmichael and grinning villain Terry-Thomas. Actually there are two scenes – the second shows Carmichael getting his own back against Terry-Thomas with newly learned tricks. This film is probably inspired a little by Monsieur Hulot, but teases out the comic and satirical possibilities of tennis with superb detail, showing how a friendly game between English gentleman amateurs is a black-comic festival of snobbery, spite, sadism and humiliation. Terry-Thomas disconcerts poor Carmichael with a thousand sneaky tricks, humiliating him in front of the woman he’s in love with. But having attended Alastair Sim’s school for scoundrels, learning the dodges and wiles of gamesmanship, Carmichael gets his own back in a rematch.

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