Tennis. I love the game, have played since childhood, have a permanent weekly date with a tennis court and often (half) joke that it is the only time in my daily life when I'm encouraged to show ruthless behaviour and am rewarded for it.
Why am I telling you this? Because Match Point, starring Scarlett Johansson, is screening at 9.30pm this Saturday on SBS One and tennis is one of its themes. And whereas others may be quick to discuss the film in relation to writer/director Woody Allen's large body of work, or want to compare its anti-hero to the one in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which is directly referenced in the film, for me it feels natural to approach the film through the prism of tennis.
[ Full schedule: SBS ONE: Sandy George Presents... ]
When we first see Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the lead role of Chris Wilton he is a professional tennis coach to well-heeled clientele. Very early on in the film, before the audience gets to know him, he delivers a speech about chance.
“The man who said 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life,” he says. “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.”
Wilton's behaviour throughout the film comes straight out of W. Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis, which argues that the trick of the game is overcoming self-imposed obstacles such as self-doubt, fear, poor concentration and harsh judgment of your own performance. The book was a publishing phenomenon in the early 1970s, long before the multi-million sport psychology industry emerged. Here's a summary of the ideas it contains.
In addition to his mental cool, it has to be said that Wilton's unabated ruthlessness is what defines him – and his deeds. This is not to say that this film is not enjoyable because of this ruthlessness – on the contrary, I most enjoy tennis when I play with ruthless intent to win and I'm sure it would be the same for anyone watching – but it sure isn't a film that dwells on the goodness of human beings.
Allen chose to call the film Match Point rather than 'Game, Set, Match', a title indicating that the result of the game stills hangs in the balance. I like to think that since the match is still anyone's to win, perhaps there'll be a sequel.