From the grimy stains of dried blood and crushed brick to the cramps and agonies of a brutal fifth set, from the anxieties of past failures to the promise of bright futures, Final Set has it all. A tennis movie for tennis fans, Quentin Reynaud’s feature delivers the tensions and glories of the sport in a way few films have. With its plausible script, winning performances, and first-rate tennis aesthetics, Final Set brings the terre battue of the French Open to the fictional story of a former prodigy hoping to earn a last bit of glory at a sport he can’t quite yet quit.
It’s something of a shame that as a sports subgenre, tennis movies have never really enraptured the sport’s fans. Hitchcock’s canny Strangers on a Train used the U.S. Open’s Forest Hills as a location and a competitor (Farley Granger) as a protagonist to great effect in 1951, with some serviceable tennis action as a backdrop to Robert Walker’s conniving murder scheme. Since, though, the sport has never really caught on in the cinema. There’ve been a few serviceable biopics (Battle of the Sexes, Borg vs. McEnroe, King Richard), a few arthouse films with tennis backgrounds (The Squid and the Whale, Match Point), and a few largely underwhelming romances (Players, Wimbledon). Aside from the occasional excellent documentary, such as the recently re-released 1981 classic The French, none of the above really conveyed what the sport can be like.
Final Set fares far better, frankly, than any of these, especially at immersing viewers in the pains and pleasures of the sport of tennis. Just now arriving on the streaming service Film Movement Plus, Quentin Reynaud’s film stars Alex Lutz as aging professional Thomas Edison, a former prodigy and French Open semifinalist whose litany of injuries has taken its toll on his career. Now ranked in the 200s, direct entry to professional tournaments is no longer possible. Without endorsement contracts, Thomas must pay his own way to lower-level events that promise little payday; meanwhile, he’s on his own for socks, shoes, bags, and other gear and perks the top-ranked players enjoy.
His fall has taken a toll, too, on his marriage. His wife, Eve (Ana Girardot), is patient and supportive, but hardly infinitely so. She’s left her own tennis career to manage Thomas’s, and she knows that his end is near if not now. The two have bills to pay and a son’s future to save for. The family can’t keep supporting this dream of Thomas’s forever—even if, as he freely admits, two decades of professional tennis have prepared him for little else.
Eve is not the only woman with an interest in Thomas’ career; his mother, Judith (Kirstin Scott Thomas) coached him in his youth and knows his game—including its failings—inside and out. Like Eve, she can see what Thomas can or will not: that his aging, injury-riddled body can take little more of the punishment the sport metes out. Neither she nor Eve harbors any false delusions about Thomas’ future. To those who know the influence of tennis parents like Peter Graf, Mike Agassi, Gloria Connors, or Betty Chang, the character of Judith will ring true.
When Thomas’ hopes for a wild card to the prestigious French Open fall through, the only way for him to gain entry to its main draw is to slog through the qualifiers, a 128-player draw of its own, where players who can survive three matches in a row earn the chance to face a seeded or higher-ranked player in the main draw. But even then, victory remains still seven full matches away from the championship. They all know no one comes through qualifiers to win. John McEnroe famously made the semifinals of Wimbledon having come through qualifiers in 1976, his grand slam debut; more recently—and to the point, after Final Set was filmed—Britain’s Emma Raducanu became the first player in tennis history to break through the qualifiers to win a grand slam event with her ten-match win streak at the 2021 US Open.
Those successes are wildly atypical, however; normally, even those players who survive the qualification rounds don’t win more than a match or two in the main draw. For most of them, it’s a scant hope of progressing beyond their current rank or, for a player like Lutz’s Thomas, a chance to recapture a bit of past glory. At 37, he’s an old man by tennis standards, an age at which any accomplishment is rare indeed. Thomas has every instance of an aging player’s success—from Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors to Younes El Anouyi and Roger Federer—catalogued and memorized as a mnemonic self-actualization mantra.
He’ll need it, and more, to make his way to the main draw. As a sport, tennis is a meritocracy where advantages are first earned, then kept, and ultimately lost. It might be the comfort of a cozy clothing contract, the front of the queue for a courtesy car, or the routine assignment of the show court, but it’s one everyone in the sport recognizes and understands. At the lower ranks, prize money is scant; break through, and rewards await. Once a top-ranked player himself, Thomas recognizes this hierarchy and his own place outside its inner circle, and that’s where the film keeps its steely focus.
To its credit, Final Set does not dwell on the sensational. With its intense focus on the individual locked in single-elimination competition, the sport has been subject to intense scrutiny on the mental health of its competitors, the blights of doping and gambling, accusations of racism and sexism, a curious history of closeting gay competitors (that may be coming to an end), and reports of intense social-media cyberbullying, tennis is in the news even when the sport’s not being played.
While a tennis movie might well address any of those newscycle-worthy controversies, Final Set keeps an intense focus on the sport played between the lines. That includes the rigors of training and preparations, the scouting and study, the long waits between matches, but really, what shines in Final Set is the on-court action. Frankly, it’s spectacular. Of the films I listed above, only Players (which was a disaster in every other respect) offered some credible on-court action with former college ace (and former pop star!) Dean Paul Martin pairing off against the era’s stars.
Final Set impressively borrows the same long-shot, full-court perspective with which fans are familiar from TV and streaming broadcasts and marries it with some close-up, high-voltage, frenzied camerawork that emphasizes the game’s speed and intensity. Star Lutz, though he claims in the press notes he’d never held a racket and is a “poor” player, has an elegant swing that mirrors the professionals. He says he spent two hours a day on court for four months to master the swing: clearly, he had some excellent physical tools and great coaching both. Cuts between Lutz and his stunt double never seem forced or false but instead a simple segue of continuity.
Edison’s foil and adversary is the cocky current phenom Damien Thosso (Jürgen Briand), and Reynaud devotes a full 25 minutes of the film’s 98-minute runtime to their final match, and it’s a doozy, the kind every tennis fan dreams of, full of momentum shifts and dramatic reversals, not to mention spectacular shotmaking. The points themselves are constructed with a rigorous fidelity to the modern game of pro tennis and look and feel much like a Roland Garros classic. Briand is an ATP professional himself whose rank hovers around where the fictional Thomas Edison’s resides, but he’s an excellent player perfectly suited to the task.
In fact, the cast as a whole is excellent. Girardot gleams with love and support but can subtly convey her sacrifices. Lithe and athletic, she reminds me of a Mirka Federer (herself once a promising professional) whose dream did not pan out. Thomas is steely presence as Judith, who knows tennis too well to delude herself about her son’s future. And Lutz himself is excellent not only on court but off. He wears the look of a Borg who never quit, like the Swede famously had at age 25, but kept on and on without success. He’s grounded and determined, well practiced at keeping an even keel, like most tennis players must.
Final Set gets nearly everything about tennis right. That might not be enough for viewers who aren’t fans or scholars of the game. But for those of us who love the sport and have wondered for decades why we can’t get a decent representation of the game onscreen, Final Set delivers something we haven’t seen before: a film that truly knows, understands, and conveys the drama of competition unique to tennis.
Final Set is available to stream on Film Movement Plus.