These films will prepare you for America’s greatest tennis event
If you need inspiration for the upcoming U.S. Open, consider checking out these three documentaries. Each features a unique tennis legend.
Nick Bollettieri, who never won a tennis match, at least at the professional level, is profiled in Jason Kohn’s Love Means Zero. Bollettieri coached a who’s who, including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Jim Courier. But Bollettieri was much more than a coach. Bollettieri changed tennis – and sports training in general with his tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. Kids left their families and lived, schooled and trained at Bollettieri’s facility, which one interviewee compared to a minimum-security prison. In relative isolation, the sole goal was winning Grand Slams. Bollettieri’s secret? The man could motivate – and manipulate. He often became a parental figure in his player’s lives, bartering affection for championships. If you won, you lived at his home, and he gave love. If you lost, you were out. Bollettieri got more than his share of Slams and fractured relationships. He’s still haunted by a falling out with Agassi. After reflecting for several hours, Bollettieri, now in his late 80s, seems to have a Eureka moment.
Pre-Bollettieri’s tennis factory, Jimmy Connors arrived on the professional tennis circuit. Growing up in blue-collar East St. Louis, Connors learned tennis the old-fashioned way: from his fiery mother. Connors became as well- known for his profane personality and competitive spirit as his championships. In 1991, Connors was 39 and recovering from surgery, on the edge of retirement. But Connors wanted one last dance. Fortunately, the U.S. Open granted him a Wild Card entry, basically a courtesy. Connors ’91 Open run is documented in This Is What They Want, available on ESPN Plus, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the creators of Billions. With his fist pumping and heckling, Connors turned Flushing Meadows into an intimate, very rowdy, late night dive bar. Frankly, Connors should’ve probably been disqualified for some of his insults. But everyone was pulling for this grumpy, gimpy old champion to turn back time. Indeed, A veteran ball person who worked many if not all of Connors ’91 Open matches told me that Connors got the benefit of some line calls. Connors remains unapologetic about his on-court conduct. As they say on reality tv, he was there to win matches, not make friends.
Eric Drath’s Renee, also available on ESPN Plus, which chronicles the life of Renee Richards, is an entirely different animal. In 1977, Richards, then 42, made her U.S. Open comeback. A few years earlier, Richards had undergone a sex change operation. In order to get into the Open, Richards had to take her case to the Supreme Court. Renee covers much more than this controversy. In addition to members of the tennis establishment, Drath interviews Richards’ friends and family members, most notably her son. It’s all extremely personal and very powerful.
NOTE: The author is himself an experienced ball person.