Unraveling Athena provides a unique look into the lives and careers of the most accomplished women’s tennis players in the world. Current and former Women’s tennis royalty make up the subjects of the doc: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Pam Shriver, Martina Hingis, Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, Monica Seles, Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic, Victoria Azarenka, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Sania Mirza, Dinara Safina, and Tracy Austin.
All the women were asked the same questions to compare and contrast their answers. Director Francis Amat intercuts the interviews with action shots from matches and artfully done clips from their careers set to an inspiring soundtrack. For deeper insight, a neuroscientist discusses the brain and body development required to make a small child with a penchant for bouncing tennis balls off the garage door into a world-class professional player.
All of the women have dramatic stories to recount of rising and falling. It’s a life of extremes. Monica Seles talks about being attacked in 1993 by an obsessed knife-wielding fan of her rival, Steffi Graf, still one of the most shocking acts of violence in all of sports history. They talk about their disparate backgrounds. Despite coming from all over the world, from vastly different circumstances, they share an obsessive drive to win, to become the best, and once having achieved that goal, to hold onto it for as long as possible.
“…a unique look into the lives and careers of the most accomplished women’s tennis players in the world.”
Dr. Russell D. Hamer, the neuroscientist, featured, gives his insights into the workings of a champion’s brain. His contributions to the film are interesting, but unnecessary, as the women’s stories of their own lives, struggles, successes, failures, and what comes after, are completely engrossing without any other embellishment. Women’s tennis has enjoyed great popularity but seldom had the media analysis spotlight, so the celebration here is welcome, well deserved, and long overdue.
The filmmakers don’t shy away from the difficult parts of what it takes to achieve this level of success. Girlhood is rarely normal for them, and typical life goals must be foregone, or deferred, in the name of the drive to win. Post tennis stardom, the women face lives more ordinary as sports announcers or pursuing other dreams like Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who leads the fight for the rights of Australia’s indigenous peoples.
As a record of history, the value of this film is unquestionable, but Amat has given us something more. She reminds us that achieving greatness requires a deep investment of time and effort, and also great sacrifice to maintain focus and intensity. Popular culture feeds on accomplished people performing but often scoffs at the ferocious zeal required to achieve that level of performance. It’s nerdy and uncool to have to try so hard. Most films have the instigating event resolved, and the protagonist evolved to a better state in the neat package of 3 acts in 90 minutes. Unraveling Athena shows us a lifetime of desire and slow progression, and puts all that effort and sacrifice front and center, as did the amazing women who are profiled.
"…achieving greatness requires deep investment of time and effort, and also great sacrifice to maintain focus and intensity"