September is a memory, but there’s one place where the U.S. Open semifinals are still underway nightly: Off-Broadway. “The Last Match,” a new play set at Arthur Ashe Stadium, pits an aging all-American favorite against a rising star from a Russian fishing village who won’t feel successful until he beats his lifelong hero.
Playwright Anna Ziegler (Nicole Kidman recently starred in the London staging of her “Photograph 51”) said the Open is a natural setting for drama, because “tennis is already theater”: “I watch the pros play and wonder what conversations they’re having with themselves at crucial moments in a match,” Ziegler told USOpen.org.
Helping the writer explore that territory is “Last Match” leading man Wilson Bethel, a one-time competitive tennis player-turned-actor, known for his four-season run on the CW’s “Hart of Dixie.”
Bethel (pictured at left) recently sat down with the USOpen.org to talk about how he’s modeled character Tim Porter – and the music he’d want to hear during changeovers, if he ever really took the court in Flushing Meadows.
USOpen.org: The idea of an aging pro trying to hold onto his game plays out frequently in sports. Is there a real athlete you had in mind as you’ve been creating Tim Porter?
Wilson Bethel: I think it’s impossible not to draw strong lines between (Roger) Federer and Tim Porter. The obvious major difference is one of nationality, because Tim is quintessentially American. So in my mind, I fused Federer and Andy Roddick.
USOpen.org: What are the most obvious parallels between theater and tennis?
Bethel: When you step out onto Arthur Ashe (Stadium), it has the feeling of being on a stage. And I think the ways I psyche myself up to get on stage every night are not so different from the ways I’d prepare to get myself on a tennis court.
USOpen.org: Such as?
Bethel: You’re getting into embarrassing personal stuff: I beat my chest – but I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. You’re trying to get into a frame of mind where you’re outside yourself. You need to put trust in the training and preparation that you’ve done … and then you just let go and see what happens.
USOpen.org: During rehearsals, you went to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and hit some volleys with Mary Carillo, the journalist and former tennis pro. What was that like?
Bethel: She’s got wonderful, loose strokes, which was amazing, because I asked her: “How often do you play now?” And she said: “Almost never.”
USOpen.org: What’s your takeaway from “The Last Match”?
Bethel: I think it speaks to the cost of ambition, the cost of yearning for greatness – and then the flip side of that, which is that ultimately, the joy and greatness is only achieved in the letting go of that yearning. … Any athlete knows their body will not be able to play at a high level forever, but there’s never a guarantee that they’re going to be OK with letting go of that competitive spirit in their mind.
USOpen.org: At Grand Slam tournaments, players get asked what music they want played on court. What would Tim Porter choose?
Bethel: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Even the Losers.” We were in tech rehearsal when he passed away, so our sound designer worked it in. Now, as the audience is leaving the theater, you hear (singing) “Even the losers … get lucky sometimes.”
“The Last Match,” through Dec. 24 at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Tickets, $79, available by calling 212-719-1300, or online at roundabouttheatre.org.