In 2010, John Isner and Nicholas Mahut met in the 1st round of the Wimbledon Championships. Due to archaic tie-breaker rules, the match wound-up lasting over 11 hours. The match was so unprecedented that Andy Samberg made an HBO mockumentary about it. Isner was the eventual winner of the match, and proceeded to have a relatively solid career that saw him ranked as high as 8th in the world.
For the loser of that match, because every match has a loser, things were a little less rosy for Nicholas Mahut. Mahut eventually described the feeling of losing the final point as if he had been “stabbed”. And he noted that he went into a three-month spell of depression following the loss. Reading about this now, you have to wonder if tennis might be the cruellest sport in the world.
Because tennis a country club sport, it doesn’t seem that cruel. However, the grind of professional tennis has chewed up many a promising pro. In Quentin Reynaud’s Final Set, the 37-year-old Thomas Edison (Alex Lutz) is one of those promising young professionals, or rather, he was. In 2001, he found himself in the semi-finals of prestigious French open, a feat made doubly important by his French heritage.
However, in the intervening twenty-years, Thomas has toiled in the ranks of professional obscurity. Now, at a positively geriatric stage of his career, Thomas finds himself at a crossroads. A bum knee has hobbled him, and he has reached the point where the arthritic damage might be permanent. Thomas has a young son and wife Eve (Ana Giradot) at home. So he must confront whether he wants to continue grinding away at the lower levels of the sport. Things have gotten so bad that Thomas is unable to secure a direct entry to the first round of the French open. And instead, he must partake in a gruelling series of qualifying matches, just to get in to the tournament.
When Thomas stands at the baseline for his first match, he’s all alone. From everything I’ve written about this film thus far, Final Set probably sounds like the definition of a boilerplate sports movie. It is, but it’s also much more than that. Most of that has to do with the impressively physical performance that Lutz brings to the table. There’s a deep loneliness to the performance that impressive to say the lost. Most importantly, this deep loneliness is physical and facially driven.
Reynaud helps this performance by emphasizing the toll that years of wear and tear have taken on Thomas’ body. There’s numerous, grisly close-ups of Thomas’ bloodied and blistered hands, his haggard eyes, and his heavily scarred knees. There’s an incredible shot within the film which tilts down Thomas’ body in the shower, so that we can see him washing the clay off of himself. Two full hours ensures that a lot of the stuff ends up on your personage.
But no sports movie can survive off one impressive performance. It needs side characters too. One such character is Thomas’ mother Judith (Kristin Scott Thomas), who owns a tennis club that Thomas occasionally coaches at. Judith breathes tennis, but seems haunted by the fact that Thomas never reached his potential. She implores Thomas to give up the chase, citing that the great Bjorn Borg retired at 25.
While Final Set is clearly about a man experiencing what will likely be his final set, the most interesting character is actually in his support network. As Thomas’ wife Eve, Giradot brings an element of painful melancholy to the film. It’s clear that she cares for Thomas, and she worries about both his physical and mental health. Simultaneously, there’s a hint of jealousy behind her actions. In what is possibly the most devastating scene in the film, Thomas makes mention of the fact that Eve was a great club player. Sadly, she was likely never good enough for a pro career like Thomas had.
It’s the fact that Eve acknowledges such a reality that makes this film feel special to me. As someone who spent years and years swimming, only to ostensibly wind up achieving very little in the sport, I understood her frustration. The complexity of emotions found in this scene feels tremendously real. It’s this reality that separates Reynaud’s film from your average sports movie. Because ultimately, Final Set is about the Mahuts of the world, those who come second, those who spend their lives chasing something they may never have, who wonder, at the end of the day, who and what it was all for.