Whether you are an ardent or a casual fan of tennis, you can’t take your eyes off the engrossing 1982 verité documentary “The French,” as the film follows the dominant figures of the era with a behindthe scenes intimacy, capturing the best of the sport at a specific moment in time.
That time is 1981, and renowned American-born photographer and filmmaker William Klein, who found success in France, gains extraordinary access to the prestigious French Open. The film, reissued this summer and screening June 14 at the Jane Pickens Theater, tracks two weeks of the Paris spectacle, from practice sessions and semi-finals to the gripping final between rising star Ivan Lendl and the legendary Björn Borg.
Along the way, Klein’s camera captures memorable moments in you-are-there style. Playing in the rain, John McEnroe pointedly but not rudely asks the umpire why the game isn’t being postponed out of safety concerns. The crowd reacts boisterously when McEnroe takes off his wet shirt at center court and changes into a dry one. Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase rib each other during a charity tournament. Nastase later clowns around with Chris Evert and Virginia Ruzici, friends who soon face each other in an intense semifinal. There’s less coverage of the women’s matches, but we do get the unbridled joy of Hana Mandlikova when she manages to upset the favored Evert in the women’s final.
There’s plenty of waiting around between the on-court action, so we get to see the athletes getting rub downs; Evert icing her right arm and shoulder; and French star and crowd favorite Yannick Noah getting his sprained ankle taped with doctors speculating whether he’ll be able to play. He does, battling Guillermo Vilas in one of the film’s highlights, while Arthur Ashe and Patrice Hagelauer watch from the stands and comment on the match. Victor Pecci, looking every bit like a GQ model, fiercely battles Borg in the semifinal and later debriefs in the locker room as his colleagues recount just how close he came to besting Borg.
The film captures a time when tennis was less corporatized; when reporters hunched over telephones with notepads in hand; and when kids were allowed to greet and pose with their favorite stars, all without a cellphone in sight.
The athletes are surprisingly candid. Noah, interviewed on a massage table, vividly describes a particularly grueling game he won against Borg. His astute observations are cut with Borg’s comments about his own demeanor that belie his reputation as “ice Borg.” He may be cool, he says, but he’s “not a machine.”
It’s hardly a spoiler to note that the film culminates in an edge-ofthe seat face-off between Borg and Lendl. We know Borg won the 1981 French Open and just about everything else at that time. It’s a memorable sequence, shot with textured detail and an intimacy that lets us hear sneakers sliding on the clay surface and see the red dirt smeared over the players’ white shorts and on their sweatsoaked shirts.
If “The French” makes you hungry for other great tennis films, check out two easily available online: last year’s documentary “Citizen Ashe,” co-directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard, explores the personal and professional life of tennis legend, activist and humanitarian Arthur Ashe. The film follows his childhood in Richmond, Virginia, where he learned to play tennis, eventually becoming the first African American man to win Wimbledon, and his years as a coach and announcer after he was forced to retire in 1980 due to heart issues.
Always a class act on and off the court, after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He died from the disease in 1993.
“Borg vs. McEnroe” (2017), the first scripted feature from Danish documentary filmmaker Janus Metz, is anchored by magnetic performances from Sverrir Gudnason as Borg and Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe. This well-crafted film follows both players to Wimbledon in 1980, where Borg is aiming for a record fifth straight title. It culminates with their epic, five-set nailbiter of a final.