‘Love Means Zero’ Review: Tennis Documentary Could Use More Andre Agassi

TIFF 2017: With prize pupil Agassi declining to participate, coach Nick Bollettieri holds court in a frustrating match against director Jason Kohn

 

Jason Kohn’s documentary “Love Means Zero” is a film about tennis, but at it is also a kind of match in itself, in which the filmmaker serves and volleys and probes for weaknesses in the implacable foe on the other side of the net. 

That foe, in a way, is also the subject of “Love Means Zero”: Nick Bollettieri, the controversial tennis instructor whose Florida academy taught such luminaries as Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and most of all Andre Agassi, whose relationship with Bollettieri began when he was barely in his teens, reached heights of glory and ended in acrimony in 1993.

The Bollettieri-Agassi relationship dominates “Love Means Zero,” which premiered on Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival before heading to Showtime. The film touches on Bollettieri’s other students, notably Courier, Kathleen Horvath and Carling Bassett; it barely mentions Seles, Pierce and Sharpova, despite their success; and it returns, again and again, to the surrogate father-son relationship that the instructor had with his prize pupil Agassi.

But while Courier, Boris Becker and others talk about the Bollettieri-Agassi bond in “Love Means Zero,” Agassi himself is conspicuously absent. Almost 25 years after Agassi lost at Wimbledon and Bollettieri subsequently ended their relationship by letter (after giving an interview to USA Today), Agassi declined to participate in the documentary.

That leaves an enormous hole at the heart of the film, though Kohn does his best to make this a movie that doesn’t need the absent Agassi. He does this by talking to others around Bollettieri, particularly his fellow coaches at the academy, and by structuring the film around a series of conversations between the director and his subject.

Not for nothing does this movie begin with the credit “Starring Nick Bollettieri.” Kohn tries hard to talk Bollettieri out of using his “performance voice,” but never really succeeds – so the film becomes a match, in which Kohn tries to get at his subject and a self-aware, protective and theatrical Bollettieri volleys everything back with frustrating equanimity or an even more frustrating insistence that he doesn’t remember.

Perched in a chair in front of the courts of what used to be his academy, the sun-baked 86-year-old coach holds court like an old, wrinkled orangutan, shooting down Kohn’s attempts at psychoanalysis and blocking every uncomfortable query:

“I don’t remember.”

“Why? I don’t know. That’s Nick.”

“If I hurt you, maybe I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Like his prize student, Agassi, Bollettieri is a master of the return – but in this instance his returns don’t lead to Grand Slam championships, they just make it harder for Kohn to create an insightful portrait of his subject.

Still, the director persists gamely; Bollettieri is never less than fascinating, and as the film goes on he seems to lose a few of his defenses and drop the self-justifying bluster just enough to give us glimmers of doubt and regret.

It is only at the end, when Kohn asks Bollettieri to read aloud a letter that Agassi wrote him (it’s from a book, so it’s hardly private correspondence), that the facade cracks, and Bollettieri’s voice breaks as he reads lines like, “On that level, I love you.”

In one of the final scenes, he writes back to Agassi, “It’s important to me that before my life ends, I say to you I’m truly sorry.”

The final credits to “Love Means Zero” point out that Andre has yet to respond.