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Photo: HBO

HBO's 7 Days in Hell Knows Its Tennis Ass From Its Tennis Elbow

Andy Samberg and Kit Harington face off in an endless Wimbledon match in a knowing and (mostly) loving sendup of the sport that even two tennis fanatics appreciate.

Our Players

Hello, I'm Previously.TV Contributor Joe Reid.
Hello, I'm Previously.TV contributor John Ramos.

The Talk

Before we get to Saturday night's premiere of the HBO mockumentary 7 Days In Hell, should we present our tennis bona fides?
I was a competitive junior and college tennis player and obsessive fan from my preteen days, to the point where I would (in the pre-internet era) create a copy of the entire U.S. Open draw, post it on my wall, and fill it in as play progressed. At some point along the way, I also became a gay man, so my obsessive tennis watching is now paired with a healthy amount of dudesploitation (™ my esteemed partner in this piece).
My legacy lives on! So, while I never actually played tennis competitively, I had a racket in my hand in some way at an early age, and what I really grew up with was watching the Grand Slam tournaments on television. The pageantry of Wimbledon in particular made a huge mark on me as a kid, and I've stayed loyal to the sport through the years. It's also probably important to note, John, that you and I have participated in hotness rankings and competitive pools for the Slams, and we've attended the U.S. Open together a couple times. And, in fact, this here conversation about 7 Days In Hell is interrupting our day-long gchat session about the women's quarterfinals. I say all this not to brag so much as to establish the fact that HBO wasn't going to slip a half-assed tennis parody past us. John, do you think they did?
Well, I give them a lot of credit for the star power; Jon Hamm narrates, for instance. It was interesting to watch as a tennis super-fan; although a lot of the material maybe would have been funnier to the more casual fan, I thought they did a solid job of landing their jokes. One thing I enjoyed was that they didn't try to cover up how terrible the two leads' (Andy Samberg and Kit Harington) tennis form is; it grew on me as a part of the story.
I think what I liked best about the movie (movie? featurette? extended sketch?) is that it was clearly made by people who watch a lot of tennis. Samberg and Harington's form may be terrible, yes, but it's terrible in the way the TGS sketches on 30 Rock are terrible: that awful form just contributes to how ridiculous both of those characters were. But I appreciate the dedication to presenting types that would be very familiar to tennis fans, if cranked up well past 11 on the dial.Samberg plays the brash, arrogant, "bad-boy" American Aaron Williams (he was adopted at an early age by Richard Williams in a bit of reverse-Blind Side-ing). One look at his ratty, spiky mullet wig and you know Aaron is hugely inspired by Andre Agassi, though there's also a lot of Andy Roddick in there. Meanwhile, Harington plays a sheltered tennis prodigy and great-white-hope for British tennis. (Again, this is a movie that knows how badly the Brits yearn for a Wimbledon champion of their own.) He's a bit more of an amalgam character: Tim Henman's scared-shitless posture combined with Andy Murray's elite world ranking, plus the haircut of a young Roger Federer. I honestly thought Harington did a fantastic job at playing the naturally less dynamic of the two characters.
A running joke is that Harington's character is constantly using the word "indubitably" as a catch-all without really knowing what it means; it's explicitly called out in a talking-head interview, but even though he keeps it up throughout the entire "film," I never got tired of it. Really great performance.Speaking of the Agassi mullet, also, that's a great example of something that's funny on its own but has another layer for tennis fans; Agassi actually wore a hairpiece for years before he embraced his baldness, and that's echoed here. One other thing I really enjoy is that everyone seems to be in the same film; on paper, you might worry about real-life tennis stars like John McEnroe, Chris Evert, and Serena Williams keeping up with the comedy geniuses around them, but I thought they were all incredibly solid. Evert in particular, with her sex commentary, cracked me up. It probably doesn't hurt that she and McEnroe at least have appeared on SNL, but I was still impressed. Serena calmly telling the tale of how her real-life father adopted Samberg's character really got me laughing.
I was hoping you'd reference Chrissy's SNL hosting gig! Such a classic. And now I want some enterprising young indie director to start writing a movie for Serena Williams (or at least a small role in something), so that she can transition to acting once she's done with tennis. She was very impressive. I did start to long for Bud Collins (or Martina! She has Will & Grace demons to exorcise!) to make an appearance, but no dice. When it came to the other talking heads, obviously Will Forte is always a winner, and Fred Armisen will deliver deadpan on command. I did find myself wishing that the format of the documentary had been more of a faithful copy of the HBO/ESPN sports doc template. Much as I love Jon Hamm, Id have killed for Liev Schreiber to have assumed voice-over duties like he does for HBO's other sports docs. There are a few times where the comedy becomes a little elbow-to-the-ribs, breaking the spell of the sports doc for me. I think with Samberg's on-court antics playing so broadly, the commentary could've been buttoned up even more. We should probably address the nature of the match between Samberg and Harington's characters, and its real-life antecedent. Care to elaborate?
Just to finish the thought, you make a good point about the VO; if it had been played more seriously, it would have been a great counterpoint to the ridiculousness on screen. But yes, let's talk about the plot. So even casual tennis fans may remember that, a few years ago, one of the top American players, John Isner, played an early-round match at Wimbledon against the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. With the exception of the US Open, the Grand Slam formats have no final-set tie-break -- if that's gibberish to you, just think baseball rules where a tie game can theoretically go on in perpetuity -- and so it came to pass that the match took three days to complete, with Isner finally winning by the preposterous score of 70-68 in the fifth set. So the film takes that match as inspiration and runs with it; at the beginning, before flashing back to see how we got there, the match is on its seventh day, with the scoreline at something like 103-102 in the fifth (you have to win by two for it to end).
What I love about 7 Days In Hell is that it (perhaps unintentionally) picks up a thread that you and I have talked about for a long time: that the Isner-Mahut match, while legendary and mind-boggling to behold, was actually full of crap tennis -- particularly if you're not a fan of ace-ace-ace-hold tennis, which I am not (Pete Sampras, you have much to answer for). So I was really attracted to the idea that an endless fifth set, while initially newsworthy and galvanizing for the sport, would eventually become unbearable. Which we get reflected in the despairing commentary by Evert and Jim Lampley, the latter of whom states plainly that he can't stand tennis. (Any idea whether this is meta-commentary or not? I know Lampley anchored HBO's Wimbledon coverage when they aired the early rounds in the mid-'90s. Is he on record as not a tennis fan?) Anyway, the on-court action soon moves into detours aplenty -- from an attempted homicide to a pivotal sex scene -- but underlying it all is the utter hopelessness at the idea of a match that won't end. (Also, like the Isner-Mahut match, this match is supposed to be a first-rounder; I like to imagine the utter chaos this injected into the imaginary Wimbledon draw.) John, what were your favorite allusions that you picked up as a hardcore tennis fan? I personally enjoyed the fact that the two fictitious Wimbledons we were privy to were 1996 and 2001, both years with unlikely Wimbledon champs in real life (that WTF Richard Krajicek win and 2001's wonderful Goran Ivanisevic triumph).
Well, I wouldn't say I enjoyed this one so much as appreciated it, but part of Samberg's character's backstory is that he was on top of the tennis world, and actually one point away from winning Wimbledon, when he just missed a serve that ended up hitting a linesman who immediately had a heart attack and died. Believe it or not, this is based in fact; in a junior U.S. Open match -- involving future No. 1 Stefan Edberg, no less -- basically the exact same thing happened. One funnier reference is Samberg coming out on a new day of the week-long match and playing much better thanks to the cocaine on his wristbands, which was a ploy that many players in the '80s, most notably McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis, were said to have used. (I loved the amped-up point in the film that the Wimbledon lines, once made of chalk and now chalk-resembling titanium paste, were also laced with cocaine.) More generally, I liked the acknowledgment of the weird celebrity friendships (Samberg's character is friends with the magician David Copperfield, playing himself here) and bizarre business ventures athletes often get into. Did you catch any others?
I enjoyed the acknowledgment of the outsize importance that the Duke and Duchess of Kent have at Wimbledon, which comes to a head when Samberg knocks a shrieking Duke of Kent to the ground in the middle of a tirade. Overall, what this movie mostly told me was that the idiosyncratic world of tennis is rife with stories to be told. They barely scratched the surface with Harington's emotionally withholding tennis mom (a delightful, if dubiously accented Mary Steenburgen), and the world of tennis dads -- and women's tennis in general -- would make for an excellent show, no parody required.At forty-five minutes, 7 Days In Hell is a morsel. It almost feels like a sketch that would play out in multiple parts over the run of a few episodes of a Key & Peele-style sketch show. But it's a lovingly crafted morsel, and unless you can't deal with Andy Samberg, its an enjoyable morsel at that. And that's not even getting into the brilliant aside about the courtroom sketch artist (and all the jokes about Sweden, really), which I don't even want to spoil here.
You make a good point that the film can function as a proof of concept that tennis can be mined for comedy. And I didn't mind that it got very broad at times -- the Queen doing any kind of physical comedy is pretty low-hanging fruit -- when it showed itself to be very smart at others. Speaking to the interminable length of the match we were discussing earlier, I giggled when Samberg yelled at the umpire, "We all know it's deuce, man!" And it's kind of blink-and-you'll-miss it, but when a particular segment of the on-court sex is happening, Harington's character is seen pitching a tent; I liked that it was there but that they didn't call undue attention to it.And speaking of gay themes, we haven't even gotten to Michael "the other Wesley Snipes" Sheen as a smarmy sports announcer who fondles a young Harington on camera. That was another moment where I thought Harington was great; his "I'm pretty dumb but even I am figuring out that this is weird" expressions worked for me.
Michael Sheen is an international treasure and should be recognized as such. Though it did feel odd to have our Tennis Twitter presence satirized so directly.
Well, neither of us has done a live interview with a hot tennis professional. Yet.

7 Days In Hell premieres at 10 PM ET, Saturday, July 11, on HBO.

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