Timing is everything in the movie world.
With the Australian Open tournament now under way, Hollywood has served up King Richard, a biopic on Richard Williams, the father and coach of two of the most undeniably dominant female tennis players of all time – Serena, 40 and Venus, 41.
Although neither player will be in Melbourne this year – the first time since 1997 that the so-called Happy Slam will be without both Venus and Serena – we can live every tennis moment in the sisters’ rise to championship status through King Richard, which is already creating plenty of Oscars buzz.
Will Smith (I am Legend, Ali), 52, plays the inspirational Richard, and he’s already won a Golden Globe for best actor, been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for best actor, and most likely the film will receive several BAFTA nominations when they’re announced on February 3.
The main cast of the film, including Jon Bernthal, Aunjanue Ellis, Tony Goldwyn, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, has also received a nomination for best Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
These nominations almost always tend to be strong indicators of who takes home the Oscars’ gold statues, with nominations announced next month and the ceremony to be held on March 27.
According to a Vanity Fair magazine review earlier this month, Smith is “doing some career-best work as a demanding but still loveable mentor, coach and guru”.
“King Richard is populist, grade-A Hollywood feel-good fare with a political consciousness, which might be what an ailing industry is looking to reward.”
Smith was “the one to beat in the best actor race this year [and] may outshine the rest of the film”, VF wrote.
What the Williams sisters thought of the biopic
When it came to promoting the film, Smith, who produced the biopic with the sisters agreeing to act as executive producers, told UK talk show The Graham Norton Show said it was an opportunity to dive into the life of the Williams family.
“As I spent time with the family and started to uncover the story, it’s amazing. He predicted Venus and Serena would be No.1 and 2 in the world two years before they were born. He wrote a 78-page plan two years before they were born.
“He studied tennis. It was a prophecy,” he said.
Posting a promotional photo shoot in South Florida after the film launch on his YouTube channel, and sitting in between the champs, he said it was a “rough day” when he knew they were in the theatre watching the film.
“It was such a relief that you guys felt like your father and your family were honoured,” he said.
“I was terrified. I got notified they were in a screening watching the movie.
“I don’t make movies for money anymore. I don’t make movies for awards … I make movies to honour people and talk about ideas that are helpful.
“This movie was a gift to you and your family, so I am ecstatic that you appreciate it.”
In response, and speaking into Smith’s hand-held camera, the sisters in unison say the movie was “incredible” and that they “loved it”.
Adds Serena: “I am so proud of this guy”, patting Smith on his shoulders.
Smith said: “As an actor it was like my whole life was on the line. You make a movie about somebody’s life, and they hate it. That would be terrible.
“They love it, that didn’t happen.”
Why has Hollywood made so few movies about tennis?
Historic gender disputes, intense exchanges with umpires, walk-offs, physical collapses and injuries, press conference train wrecks – the world of tennis has delivered many real-life instances of “high-stakes drama”.
Surprisingly, however, this hasn’t translated into a flood of movies about real-life tennis moments. In fact, a quick search finds just a handful of tennis-themed indie comedies, biopics and real-life dramas.
The New York Times wondered whether audiences didn’t really like “watching actors impersonate world-class athletes”.
Regardless, let’s take a walk down memory lane.
In 2017, the Battle of the Sexes, loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), was well received by critics but bombed at the box office.
King won that match and changed the course of women’s tennis.
Hard to imagine Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) playing John McEnroe in the 2017 Swedish biopic Borg vs McEnroe, but he has a good crack at McEnroe and delivers on his famous one-liners including “You cannot be serious”.
In reality, the two tennis greats played 14 times between 1978 and 1981 including the dramatic showdown at Wimbledon in 1980.
“The game is remarkably exciting to watch, a sign (like the climactic contest between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King reconstructed in Battle of the Sexes) that movies may at last be ready for tennis.
“That seems to be a result of advances in digital editing and image-making that allow the actors to be inserted seamlessly into the action,” the NYT wrote in April 2018.
You need to backtrack another 16 years to find the 2005 rom-com Match Point starring Scarlett Johansson and Wimbledon, in 2004, with Kirsten Dunst.