Directed by Francis Amat, Unraveling Athena: The Champions of Women’s Tennis chronicles the lifelong journey that female tennis champions experience. Filled with interview footage of the world’s most successful tennis stars, Unraveling Athena gives us a glimpse into the lives of such players as Pam Shriver, Victoria Azarenka, Jalena Jankovic, and Billie Jean King, among many others.
Most of these women started playing tennis at a very young age. They discuss their families and schooling but one thing that seems to be a common element is the unwavering support of their parents.
Although tennis was their passion, they acknowledge the sacrifices made as children in order to seriously pursue a career as a professional athlete.
Interestingly, we hear from Dr. Russell Hamer, a Neuroscientist who discusses the psychological aspect of the sport. He essentially speaks on the brain activity of a champion. We see that with sheer drive and motivation, also comes self-doubt and struggles with their “inner game”. Just as a professional athlete must practice the physical elements of their sport and keep their bodies in shape, they must also practice mentally. Tennis is a very individual sport and can perhaps seem lonely at times. There’s no one to blame but yourself if you fail. Even so, behind the individual is a support system of family, coaches, etc. There’s great mentorship in tennis.
We also see the struggles women specifically face in professional sports. For example, a woman is often told that she is “so competitive” in a negative way, whereas if that were said to a man, it would be a compliment. Billie Jean King specifically discusses her attempts to bring men and women together, as well as her struggles with sexism in the tennis world. She discusses her match with Bobby Riggs (also portrayed in the film, Battle of the Sexes) and how she felt that a loss would have set women back another 50 years. She also advocated for equal prize money at the US open. She really has been instrumental in equality in tennis (and beyond).
With the quick cuts between numerous interviews, consistent background music, and what seems like stock footage of young women playing tennis, Unraveling Athena almost felt like a long YouTube video. Despite the intriguing content, the structure of the documentary as a whole didn’t draw me in.
Perhaps I wanted to dive deep into some of these women’s stories. The documentary mentions how expensive tennis is, from paying for academies, coaches, and gear to traveling all over the world for competitions. Tennis is a global sport. While many of the women discussed how their parents couldn’t afford it, their communities rallied behind them. Personally, I would have loved to have heard more about this.
We hear women talking about coming out in the sport, or even being outed. One woman briefly mentioned that she had been stabbed. I was begging for more on these events, but they were only briefly mentioned. Although perhaps Unraveling Athena is more of an overarching view of female tennis as a whole, as opposed to individual stories.
Unraveling Athena launches on digital platforms on August 11, 2020.