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Gods of Tennis – A Documentary on a Golden Era

By Vanessa Taylor

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The last couple of years has seen a flurry of tennis documentaries.

It may be due to the recent proliferation of sports documentaries generally, with Netflix leading the way with Beckham, Formula 1 – Drive to Survive, The Redeem Team and The Last Dance (NBA), Full Swing (golf), Tour de France: Unchained, amongst others. And, of course, its tennis documentaries Breakpoint and Naomi Osaka.

Gods of Tennis is a three part documentary by Mindhouse Productions for BBC-TV. It’s also available on streaming platforms internationally.

The documentary introduces itself as “the inside story of how in the ’70s and ’80s a cast of unapologetic mavericks revolutionised the tranquil world of tennis”.

Its “world of tennis” is Wimbledon. Journalist Sue Mott pithily claims that this grand slam is “…the stage for brutal gladiatorial combat disguised as a vicar’s tea party”.

There are glimpses of other tournaments when the stories require but Wimbledon was chosen as the “world” probably for a couple of reasons. According to Chris Evert, Wimbledon is the tournament every player dreams of winning. Plus, more practically, as both the Wimbledon broadcaster and commissioner of the documentary, the BBC could provide free access to the footage.

Episode 1 of the series is entitled Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe. They are paired in the series not just because they won Wimbledon singles titles on the same weekend in 1975, but because of their social activism.

As a young man, Ashe navigated the privileged world of American tennis that determined he was ineligible to enter some events reserved as whites-only and ended up a Wimbledon champion at 31.

When he played in South Africa in 1973 during apartheid, Ashe insisted there would not be racial segregation at matches.

In the same year, Bobby Riggs invited King to play him in “The Battle of the Sexes”. With 90 million viewers watching, esteemed broadcaster Howard Cassell offered that King was “a very attractive young lady and sometimes you get the feeling that if she let her hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off, you’d have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test.” 

A tidbit from the documentary is that Ashe won a lot of money when he wagered on King to beat Riggs.

While King vigorously campaigned for a women’s tennis association and tour, to some, she contrasted unfavourably with the demur young Chris Evert with her blonde plait and daisy embroidered tennis frocks.

King’s aggressive style of play, now commonplace in women’s tennis, was also judged by some contemporaries as inappropriate.

Bobby Wilson, a Davis Cup player for Great Britain, is shown in an interview of the time saying: “The game is possibly not so attractive today with the emphasis on some of the girls like Bille Jean King, who charges around the court very much like a man.” 

Episode 2 is called Björn Borg and John McEnroe.

In 1981, the Swede and the American played one of the great Wimbledon finals. The tiebreak in the fourth set lasted 20 minutes and McEnroe saved five championship points to win it 18-16. But Borg took the match, 1–6 7–5 6–3 6–7(16) 8–6.

Gods of Tennis reminds us that the top players of the era were akin to “rock stars”.

Top sports agent Donald Dell explains that tennis had become a “global sport.”

“Tennis was absolutely massive”, agrees Pat Cash, who seems to be a commentator in every tennis documentary going these days. “I cannot imagine what it would be like to be Björn Borg. It was invasive for me and I had a fraction of what he had.”

It’s shocking now to see the footage of dozens of girls racing onto the court straight after a Borg match and swarming around him.

Outside his hotel, hundreds of girls would wait, hoping for a glimpse of him.

“I could never be alone,” Borg laments. At the end of the episode, he says, “I was happy to leave tennis”, which he did at the age of 26. To his rival and friend McEnroe, “It was a damn shame is what it was.”

McEnroe and Wimbledon were in mutual culture shock. “Boy, these people are different over here,” McEnroe remembers thinking.

The documentary shows the usual “Best of” McEnroe’s outbursts and recalls that after his tantrums of 1981, he became the first player at Wimbledon to be fined for bad behaviour.

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert earned an episode in their names through their remarkable rivalry which extended to 80 matches, including 60 finals.

Evert sums it up well. “In the ’70s and ’80s, Martina and I for 12 years were number 1 and number 2. Our rivalry was stronger maybe than us individually, and it had more of an impact on the game of tennis. I mean that’s one of the beautiful things we talk about: we improved each other.”

Ultimately, the sudden emergence of Steffi Graf had an impact on both their careers.

Navratilova’s story has so many interesting facets that enrich the documentary – her escape from Czechoslovakia; her desperation to be accepted in the US; the Duchess of Kent intervening to get her mother a visa to attend Wimbledon; her outing by media that bribed players for information on her sexuality (in 1981, the same year King was outed); a triumphant return to her home country with the fall of communism.

Jimmy Connors, though not officially deemed a “God”, is the thread between all three episodes. In the first, he is the nemesis of Arthur Ashe, beating him in South Africa to spoil the fairytale, and suing him for defamation at the time of their 1975 Wimbledon final.

Next episode, he battles McEnroe and warns him “Keep your mouth shut out there” during their 1980 Wimbledon semi final. Connors is shown joking with people in the crowd as McEnroe argues with the umpire.

He appears in the final episode as Chris Evert’s fiancé. They both won the singles championships in 1974, which was dubbed the “Love Double”.

For those unfamiliar with the era, the ample match footage may provide a revelation. For everyone else, a warm nostalgia.

Many of the stories might be familiar to tennis fans though there are a few surprising gems. And it’s good also to have all the “Gods” present to tell their stories first-hand – excepting Ashe, who died in 1993.

Navratilova still holds the record for number of singles titles won at Wimbledon with nine.

So she is granted the final word. “That golden era, we didn’t realise we were in it until later when you look back. You’re like, wow, that was pretty special.”

Images from Mindhouse / BBC

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