From actor to instant tennis pro

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"Wimbledon," starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany, may be billed as a romantic comedy, but it is also a next-generation sports movie, offering a tennis ball's view of the game and making tennis look like an extreme sport.

The romance comes from an American tennis champ (Kirsten Dunst) who falls for a former tennis star (Paul Bettany), now ranked 157th, as he tries for one last shot at England's most prestigious tennis tournament.

The real excitement, however, comes from watching the tennis balls perform a choreography that makes the actors look as if they're playing with Roger Federer-like precision.

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To create that illusion, director Richard Loncraine took a different tack from most sports films. He relied heavily on computerized effects rather than on arduous coaching to turn Dunst and Bettany into proper tennis players.

"I considered that a waste of energy," says Mr. Loncraine. "The thing to do was to make them look like real tennis players"

The actors trained with tennis pros for four months to perfect their moves, but they used the real fuzzy yellow item in just a few of their serves and shots. For nearly all the major tennis action of the movie, the actors tossed and sliced away at imaginary projectiles.

That wasn't as easy as it sounds. "It was particularly challenging to work on tennis moves without the benefit of an actual ball," says Dunst.

Computers inserted a digital ball during postproduction. That allowed the filmmaker to slow shots down for dramatic effect, as well as offer shots from the point of view of the ball itself. But most important, it created perfect shots that pros train a lifetime to master.

"You simply can't hit the ball and repeat it for multiple camera angles over and over the same way," says Bettany. "This film couldn't have been done in this style until recently."

Compare this approach to popular sports films such as 1980's "Raging Bull." When Robert De Niro took on the role of boxer Jake La Motta, he trained for a year under La Motta himself, then fought in amateur bouts.

"Wimbledon" involved far less rigor but it wasn't without complications. Much of the action was filmed during the real 2003 tournament. But persuading officials to allow 120 film-crew members to tromp the grass courts during the competition was nothing compared with balancing the film's two genres.

"I thought romantic comedy was easy, but it's not," says Loncraine. "I thought sports movies, even with special effects were easy. They're not easy either."

Does the new digital approach make for a convincing onscreen match?

"We screened it for John McEnroe and he said he was impressed, and he doesn't impress easily," says the director. "I think it should work for most Friday night audiences."

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