'It's all just made up' – the making of the video showing the lighter side of tennis
A strange thing happened in tennis last week. Tennis was funny; and irreverent; and ironic; and surprising.
For almost 150 years, tennis has generally taken itself extremely seriously. Centre Court at Wimbledon and Sunday mass — not so different. The Australian Open last month made a revolutionary shift by allowing spectators to return to their seats between each game, rather than making them wait for the changeovers that only occur every other game.
Miraculously, the sun rose in the east the next day.
And then came last Wednesday, when a five-minute video in which several of the biggest stars in the sport revealed the supposed truth about the game — that it’s a scripted production rather than actual sport — began pinging around the internet, heralding the beginning of “Season 52” of the men’s tour.
There was Andy Murray (or was it an actor named Fraser McKnight?) looking very serious, sitting for a tell-all interview.
“The players, the matches, it’s all just made up,” he said. “Let’s face it, people are stupid, so they’ll buy anything.”
There was Novak Djokovic coming clean about his true identity as the actor Bert Critchley, practising ripping his shirt in front of a bathroom mirror and discussing his process of getting into character.
“I want to bring truth to Novak,” he said. “What is he thinking, what is he feeling, what would motivate him, if he was a real person?”
There were Dominic Thiem and Andrey Rublev in a studio adding their particular moans and grunts to their strokes. There was Stan Wawrinka being aloof to a production assistant, and Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz passing time waiting to be called to the set, and Gael Monfils stumbling through a mobility drill, because he’s actually an actor who is terribly unathletic.
It was all very This Is Spinal Tap, or Ricky Gervais in the heyday of the original episodes of The Office.
And so very un-tennis. Which was kind of the point.
Behind this pivot are two Brits named Tom Greaves and Will Pearson, who roughly a year ago joined ATP Media, which is essentially the television company for men’s tennis and the biggest tournaments that are not the four Grand Slams. Suffice it to say, Greaves and Pearson were not hired because of their ability to produce shows where experts would bang on about the merits of western grip vs the continental.
They arrived at the behest of Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP Tour and a former player who spent time working in the music industry following his retirement, and Mark Webster, the chief executive of ATP Media, both of whom have wanted for some time for the sport to begin exploiting television opportunities beyond the matches themselves to expand their audience.
Greaves and Pearson had spent much of the previous decade doing just that for golf’s European Tour, which, partly because of their efforts, had developed a reputation as having a little more fun and personality than its American counterpart.
Granted, that may not have been all that heavy a lift. Still, in addition to some more traditional, narrative-driven productions, there was that viral video of the Guinness World Records attempt by a team of four golfers to play the fastest hole.
There was the meeting of the “Content Committee”, with golfers trying to come up with content that would sell their tour (cats playing the piano?). There was the anger-management meeting video. All golfers with rather temperamental reputations “very happy to kind of take the piss out of themselves,” Greaves said.
“What we tried to do in general was to have a real range of different types of flavors,” Pearson said.
Now they are doing that same work for tennis, odd as that might seem to the “tennis whites only” crowd.
Last year, they convinced Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune to play a tiebreaker with rackets with very little string. They convinced Rublev and Grigor Dimitrov to play a tiebreaker with rackets that were relics from 40 and 70 years ago.
And then last month Greaves and Pearson and a production team headed to Australia with one of the ideas that evolved from their endless brainstorming sessions into a script, and with a mission to convince a handful of unsuspecting players to do something they and their sport had barely done before, which is to say, turn it into farce.
First they got to Murray, who is known for his dry and sarcastic wit. He got it immediately and nailed his lines, giving them the bait they needed.
“We got him to say another couple of lines that will come out later, which may be arguably funnier,” Greaves said.
They showed the Murray cuts to Djokovic, who immediately got what they were up to. Djokovic delivered his first take on one of his lines, then said he could do better, and asked for a chance to do it again. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has toyed with filmmaking himself, did the same thing.
After the video dropped Wednesday, everyone in tennis started talking about it, rather than the tournaments going on in Dallas or Abu Dhabi or the south of France.
“Hilarious,” Coco Gauff wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“How do I get a better part in WTA show? Because my character sucks!”, posted Magda Linette, the veteran from Poland who has made just one Grand Slam singles semifinal.
That may be possible. This production may not have included any women, but since Greaves and Pearson work for ATP Media, which represents the five top non-Grand Slam tournaments that include both men and women, they are eager to involve the ladies.
“You’re able to get different-feeling content when it’s more of an ensemble thing,” Pearson said.
In the immediate future, be on the lookout for some outtakes and bloopers from the Australia shoots. Critchley and McKnight, the ‘actors’ who play Djokovic and Murray on the ATP Tour, may or may not get their own social media accounts.
“We just wanted to do something that would surprise people and they’d be like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’,” Greaves said.
Done. And done.
(Top photo: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)