Hello tennis fans and welcome to the first weekly installment of “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and story lines from the world of men’s tennis.
As someone who grew up attending the National Bank Open as a kid and who has covered it from a media perspective annually since 2008, I’m really looking forward to shining the spotlight on the athletes of the ATP Tour as we look forward to another fantastic tournament this coming August in Toronto. My colleague Paul Rivard will be providing a companion piece each week featuring storylines from women’s tennis in anticipation of the OBN WTA event in Montreal as well. Together these should provide you with plenty of great tennis stories as we build-up to the two Premiere tournaments on the Canadian tennis landscape!
THE NETFLIX CURSE AND PREMIERE OF “BREAK POINT”
Do you believe in curses, bad mojo or just plain bad luck?
Something was amiss early on at the Australian Open as all featured players from the new Netflix series “Break Point” were either injured or bounced from contention sooner than expected at the first Slam of 2023. Let’s take a look at some of the “victims” and you can judge for yourself whether or not something was at work behind the scenes!
The show opened in episode one with one of the most controversial figures in men’s tennis, none other than Australia’s Nick Kyrgios. Whether you like him or not, there’s no doubt he brings new fans to the table.
I’ve seen Kyrgios at his best and worst over the years at the National Bank Open in Toronto. In 2016, he was angrily sulking on court between changeovers during the first ATP win for our very own Denis Shapovalov. In 2018 I saw the other side of Kyrgios, as he invited fans courtside during his practice session for selfies, autographs and even one lucky boy who got to sit with his team while he hit. The Netflix curse struck Kyrgios before play even began this year in Melbourne, as the World No. 21 was forced to withdraw with a knee injury.
The first casualty among the players who made it into the actual draw was 13th seed Matteo Berrettini, who fell in a blockbuster opening round match against the ageless Andy Murray 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-7, 7-6. Despite Berrettini being nine years younger and making the semifinals in Australia a year ago, it was the veteran Murray who managed to survive this grueling first-round encounter. Berrettini was featured in the second episode of “Break Point” alongside then-partner and current WTA star Alja Tomljanovic.
American Taylor Fritz was the featured ATP player in the third episode of the series which highlighted his impressive run to the title in Indian Wells a year ago in front of his hometown family and friends. Fritz was seeded eighth at the Aussie Open but also fell in the second round, in five sets, to local longshot Alexei Popyrin, ranked 113th on the tour.
Next up was World No.2 Casper Ruud, who has proven himself an all-surface threat over his last couple of seasons on tour. His stock rose sharply in 2022 where he made the finals of both Roland Garros and the US Open. He went out far earlier than expected in Melbourne, falling in the second round to 39th ranked Jenson Brooksby.
The final male tennis player to suffer from the alleged Netflix Curse was Canada’s Félix Auger-Aliassime, one of the hottest players on the tour at the end of 2022 where he won three ATP titles in the Fall. Félix made it to the round of 16, but did not last nearly as long as his growing legion of fans would have liked to have seen. He nearly bowed-out in the second round after dropping the opening two sets to Alex Molcan before coming back to take the match in five. Ultimately it was 21-year-old Jiri Lehecka who beat Felix to complete the final victim among the men from “Break Point.”
Curse or not, it’s a big win for the sport of tennis to have a series like “Break Point” to highlight the mental and physical challenges that professional tennis players must endure throughout the grueling season. Look at how many new fans took notice of the F1 circuit after the sport was placed in the spotlight in “Drive to Survive” which began in 2019.
Great footage of the actual races brought the speed and danger of the sport into viewers living rooms, along with capturing the fiery personalities of the drivers and the intense rivalries that exist between the ten teams and twenty racers.
This is how tennis might stand to profit from a similar series as well. Focus on the product: some of the fittest athletes on the planet hitting that tennis balls with all kinds of power, spin and pin-point accuracy. Share their personalities and highlight the mental hurdles they must face and overcome. How could you not take notice?
While the early results in 2023 weren’t kind to the players who were featured in the first five episodes of the series (there will be five more episodes released in June), there is certainly lots of time left for them to get back on track. Let’s also not forget that while they were being filmed throughout the 2022 season, all of the players mentioned above achieved some of the best results of their careers.
Kyrgios made the finals of Wimbledon, Berrettini won on grass in Stuttgart and London, Ruud made the first two Slam finals of his career, Fritz established himself as a legit top 10 player winning in Indian Wells, Eastbourne and Tokyo and of course Felix Auger Aliassime captured three titles in the late stages of the season propelling him to a career-high ranking.
All of them will find a way to shake-off a tough start in Australia and show their long standing supporters as well as new fans accrued from “Break Point” why they were chosen as the faces of the show in the first place.