Tennis: The Effort to Innovate the Sport Through Netflix's 'Break Point'

In January 2022, as the world was captivated by the high-speed drama of Formula One through Netflix's "Drive to Survive," a new promise emerged from the streaming giant, aiming to replicate that success on the tennis courts.

by Faruk Imamovic
Tennis: The Effort to Innovate the Sport Through Netflix's 'Break Point'
© Getty Images/Candice Ward

In January 2022, as the world was captivated by the high-speed drama of Formula One through Netflix's "Drive to Survive," a new promise emerged from the streaming giant, aiming to replicate that success on the tennis courts. "Get ready for access to professional tennis like you’ve never seen before," announced Netflix, signaling the beginning of what many hoped would be a renaissance for the sport's global popularity. 

Brandon Riegg, the vice president of unscripted and documentary series for Netflix, promised a series "packed with rare access and rich personal stories," aiming to captivate not just longstanding tennis enthusiasts but also to reel in a new audience.

However, just over two years later, the journey came to an abrupt halt. Netflix confirmed the cancellation of "Break Point" after just two seasons, citing disappointing viewing figures as the primary cause. The series, crafted by Box to Box Films — the same team behind the successful "Drive to Survive" — failed to replicate the formula that had brought newfound attention to Formula One racing. This decision sparked a wide range of reactions, from relief to disappointment, highlighting the missed opportunity to elevate tennis to new heights.

The anticipation and subsequent disappointment surrounding "Break Point" reveal much about the current state of tennis, a sport fragmented by competing interests and the protective nature of its stars over their personal narratives. The challenge of securing engaging content and the struggle for cooperation from top players were significant hurdles that the production team faced, underlining the complexities of blending sports with reality-based storytelling.

Behind the Scenes: Access, Cooperation, and Controversy

One of the critical factors contributing to the series' downfall was the limited access to star players, a crucial component for any documentary aiming to offer an intimate look at the world of professional sports. While "Drive to Survive" thrived on its behind-the-scenes glimpses and personal stories from the Formula One circuit, "Break Point" struggled to secure similar levels of cooperation from the tennis world's biggest names. The series managed to feature engaging narratives from players like Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Nick Kyrgios, and others who were willing to share their lives beyond the court. Yet, it missed out on capturing the full essence of the sport's allure by failing to include more prominent figures more extensively.

Nick Kyrgios
Nick Kyrgios© Getty Images/Kelly Defina

The reluctance of top-tier tennis stars to participate fully stemmed from various concerns, ranging from the intrusive nature of the required access to the fear of misrepresentation. Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic, among others, chose to develop their own documentaries, seeking control over their narratives rather than entrusting them to the Break Point team. 

Moreover, the series faced criticism for its editorial choices, including the controversial handling of sensitive topics. An episode focusing on Alexander Zverev, for instance, drew ire for omitting mention of serious allegations against the player, raising questions about the documentary's integrity and the responsibilities of creators in addressing such issues.

A Missed Opportunity for Tennis?

Netflix pulling the plug on "Break Point" after just two seasons really makes one wonder what could have happened if they'd gotten more of the big tennis stars to join in. Tennis is always changing, with fresh faces popping up and the whole game of fame and success shifting around. "Break Point" had a real shot at making tennis even more popular, especially with younger folks who might not know much about the game.

But, the show just couldn't make it into Netflix's top 10 list consistently, even in places where people love tennis. When you look at how shows like "Drive to Survive" for Formula One racing, and "Full Swing" for golf did, you see what "Break Point" was missing. Those shows not only pulled in new fans but also got people who were already fans excited all over again. They showed how a sports documentary done right can really change how people see a sport and get more people into it.

The people making "Break Point" did try to work together with tennis groups, and it seemed like they were on the right track, wanting to try new things and reach out to fans in different ways. But, it looks like they didn't quite get everyone on board from the get-go, and that might have been a big reason things didn't work out. The tennis world's big thank you and their hope for the future show they see the good in teaming up with media to lift the sport higher. The trick is figuring out how to get everyone - the players, the people running the show, and the storytellers - on the same page to make something real and interesting for fans everywhere.

Lessons Learned and the Future of Sports Documentaries

As Netflix and other content creators continue to explore the intersection of sports and documentary storytelling, the lessons learned from "Break Point" will undoubtedly influence future projects. The balance between access and editorial integrity, the importance of player cooperation, and the challenges of accurately representing complex personal and professional landscapes are all factors that will shape the development of similar series.

The announcement of a new docuseries focusing on Carlos Alcaraz, a rising star in tennis, indicates a continued interest in tapping into the rich narratives within the sport. This project, and others like it, will benefit from a thoughtful approach to the issues that emerged during the creation and reception of "Break Point."