You may not think you care who wins The Last Match, currently playing Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company, but you do. Anna Ziegler’s writing compels audiences to invest in her characters, their stories, and the result of the U.S. Open semifinal between fictional Tim Porter and Sergei Sergeyev.
In tandem with director Gayle Taylor Upchurch’s staging, the story transitions between the on-court match (choreographed with tutelage from tennis pro Mary Carillo) and scenes of memories running through the players’ heads at that exact moment, revealing how internal battles impact a forehand winner here, a swing into the net there. “It was important to me that they could move back and forth as quickly as possible so that it could feel like it’s their memory and not like an actual flashback but more the memory,” says Upchurch. “That’s why the decision came to not use rackets or balls, so they wouldn’t have to put anything down. They could literally hit an ace and turn around and be talking to their wives.”
With equal notes of humor and pain, Ziegler peels back layers to the people beneath the public image.
A former youth player and current fan of the game, Ziegler wanted to combine her passions and was inspired by American great Andy Roddick’s on court retirement speech at the 2012 U.S. Open. (Watch it here.)
That’s when Ziegler “realized what the backdrop of the play was going to be and what the heart of the play was going to be.” And while Tim Porter’s story, the all-American golden boy whose rumored retirement has him questioning who he is without the game, is certainly the plot’s lynchpin, the action toggles between his struggles of identity and those of his challenger, the hot-headed Russian up-and-comer Sergei Sergeyev. A player born to a meager fisherman on the Caspian Sea and left home at age nine to pursue his tennis talent, his tale investigates “how we conquer our demons to fulfill our potential,” say Ziegler.
The Last Match captures the emotional and psychological component of the individual sport and the mental toughness required to rise in the ranks. When, say, Roger Federer dominates his opponent, and closes out the first set without breaking a sweat, why does he crumble at the top of the second? “Tennis is full of all these momentum swings and why does that happen?” asks Zeigler. “It’s so psychological. The fun I had was trying to figure out what players are thinking of when they have those swings.” Playbill spoke to Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Zoë Winters, and Natalia Payne on their opening night to hear their perspective on staging the work, switching from match to memory on a dime, onstage chemistry, and which real-life tennis figures inspired their characters in the round-robin below:
Wilson, I know you play tennis, but are all of you tennis fans? Are you novices?
Zoë Winters (Tim’s wife Mallory): I like watching it, but I don’t play.
Wilson Bethel (Tim): You play a little. She’s got a nice forehand. Backhand a little rocky, but the forehand is real nice.
Winters: We all went to the U.S. Open a number of times, so I think we all kind of became fans.
Natalia Payne (Sergei’s girlfriend Galina): When I first read this play I never watched a tennis match in my life so I feel like I maybe have the steepest tennis appreciation curve of anyone.
Bethel: You should have heard her yelling and cheering at the U.S. Open, though.
As a person who watches tennis consistently, I know I watch the player’s box for their family and their significant others. Tell me about building the Mallory and Tim relationship and the Sergei and Galina relationship that we see the silent interactions during match play and the really intimate interactions during the scenes.
Bethel: The very interesting aspect of it—when the players are out there—is that their personal lives are made public in a thinly veiled way. I remember watching the last match Andy Roddick played and his wife is in tears behind these giant sunglasses and you see the tears running down her cheeks and there’s no way not to recognize what the moment is that’s happening between them as a couple. And your mind is running about the conversations that they’re having, intimate, hard conversations, and she knowing him better than anyone else in that [arena], but we’re watching it happen on this stage in front of 20,000 people. So I think that’s a really interesting component, the “publicization” of people’s personal lives.
How do you maintain the momentum of the match while popping out into the memories?
Mickiewicz: It’s tough. The writing does a lot of the work for us. The scenes are capped with moments that launch you back in to the moments of the match. The match either sends you into the scene or the scene sends you back into the match. So they work in tandem with each other.
Did you study any particular tennis players to inform who your Sergei is?
Mickiewicz: He wasn't in there when Anna started writing the play. I think of [Nick] Kyrgios. The way everyone talks about him that he has all this potential and stuff but he hasn't lived up to it and that he's hot-headed. He kind of self-destructs. I also think of [Rafael] Nadal and how much of a scrapper he is and the level of intensity he plays during every moment of every match. I looked at some of the older players, Marat Safin. I watch some of their play and I watch highlights of their outbursts.
Bethel: Thank you, YouTube. “Outburst Highlights 2016.”
Were you pulling from Andy Roddick, Wilson?
Bethel: I was imagining a cross between Federer and Andy Roddick. Obviously, it's important to the play that Tim Porter is essentially American and has a very all-American quality, which I think Andy Roddick had in spades. I think that's part of what made him such an appealing player even though he wasn't a transcendent player. And then obviously there are too many parallels to the Federer arc to ignore.
Winters: I think of myself as a little Steffi Graf.
Is that who you drew from to get in the mind of the wife of a player?
Winters: Gaye Taylor and I would reference her a lot in rehearsals, her strength and drive. She also tends to stay clear of the spotlight and the way she navigates living a personal life in the public eye felt interesting to incorporate into Mallory’s story. I watched the players and the viewers at the Open. Mirka Federer’s courtside repose was very impressive and useful. It’s interesting how little they sometimes show when the stakes are that high. They know the cameras are on them and they’ve learned to temper their responses. And sunglasses help.
Payne: My initial inspirations for Galina were the dramatic women I encountered growing up in an Eastern European family (my mother’s family is from Ukraine). [But] we got to see Federer play a match in Arthur Ashe, and realized halfway through that Mirka was sitting right below us. She spent a lot of the match on her phone, which made me realize that, for her, watching her husband play tennis was so commonplace, just another day at the office. But there were moments, too, when Roger would lose a point, or when he would change his shirt between sets and all the women in the crowd would pull out their phones to snap a photo of her husband shirtless, and Mirka would look down or turn her face. It made me realize how difficult it must be to go through watching the person you love compete on such a huge stage, while also being on display yourself. I also came across Biljana Sesevic (the wife of a Serbian player named Janko Tipsarevic) whose courtside style really spoke to me: huge sunglasses, a very Euro fashion sense, a lot of attitude. She definitely struck me as someone who knew she was there to be part of the spectacle.
Tim’s story is anchored to his wife Mallory, and the juxtaposition of his success in the sport and the struggle to get pregnant and have a child at home. How do you get through the most painful moment together each night?
Winters: Wilson is my only direct partner out on the stage, although I do feel we are working collectively as a musical piece. But Wilson is my partner out there and I seriously couldn’t be any luckier. As long as I’m talking to him and listening to him and making sure that we’re telling the story then that's what we do, but I don't go in thinking it's going to go a certain way. Miscarriage is frequent and it isn’t talked about a lot. It’s an untold story, so I think that Wilson and I head out to tell that story and make sure those people feel like their story is being told.
The choreography of the actual tennis match is intense, too.
Mickiewicz: GT’s dance background lent itself to it. In the actual script there are no hits that are written in the play. Anna didn't write “here’s a forehand” or “here's a rally between the two players.” I think GT when she read the play she was like, “If I'm going to direct this I want to see and experience the physical movements, the dance-like movements of the tennis players and see them grinding it out and have these hits.” We built a vocabulary of movement that were just enough to lend itself to the physical play.
Bethel: And a fair number of things change every night. To a certain degree.
Mickiewicz: That’s also thanks to our stage manager, who is calling them all live. She cues everything up off of our movements. I don’t know about you, I’m not consistent that I do a forehand here and a backhand here.
What is the moment you most look forward to each night? The moment that has the most meaning?
Mickiewicz: This is a tough one. I would have to say the third set when I’m recalling the story of racing my father and beating him time and time again. The moment right after the story when Sergei realizes that he wants to stop playing tennis but also can’t stop has always been so relatable to me as an actor. Any actor knows that when times are tough, they’re REALLY tough. I’ve often considered calling it quits because I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through that anymore. But then, just like that, at the start of the fourth set (and this is probably technically a separate moment) Sergei finds the strength he needs from the crowd and is reminded why he loves the game.
Winters: I like when the play begins. Now that we’re through with rehearsals I’ve found myself in a bit of a sad slump, waiting for curtain. I spend the day waiting for the show to start.
Payne: I really enjoy when all four of us are onstage together, when the guys are fighting or trash-talking each other in the match and the ladies get to react and interact with their men. But I especially cherish the “Goodnight Sergei” scene, where Galina puts Sergei to sleep at the end of one of their dates. It’s just such a wonderful portal into both characters’ hidden vulnerabilities and the connection they share.
Bethel: Stepping out onto the stage each night. That’s the moment for me. The rush is so pure—the joy of it. I feel incredibly blessed to be part of this show, to be doing this work. Every night, just before the stand-by light blinks off and I walk out there, I thank my lucky stars. Also, my head is down for it and I can't see what's going on, but I love hearing Sergei’s proposal to Galina. Sometimes I can smell the french fries. And that makes me happy.
The Last Match currently plays Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through December 24, 2017.
See Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match Off-Broadway
The above interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.