No Love lost
Prime Video drama Fifteen-Love serves up a complicated story of abuse and power, set in the world of professional tennis. Writer Hania Elkington and executive producer Jake Lushington speak to DQ about balancing big themes with entertainment, developing messy characters and recreating tennis for television.
In the wake of films and documentaries such as King Richard, Break Point and Gods of Tennis, the world of professional tennis has never been more visible or open to fans of the sport. And now, launching on Prime Video not long after the dust has settled on this year’s Wimbledon, six-part drama Fifteen-Love walks the line between personal and professional relationships in the game to explore what happens when a former female tennis prodigy makes explosive allegations against her old coach.
Newcomer Ella Lily Hyland plays Justine Pearce, who had a meteoric rise in the world of Grand Slam tennis in the charge of maverick coach Glenn Lapthorn (Aidan Turner). Together, they reached the semi-finals of the French Open before tragedy struck on court, with a devastating wrist injury destroying Justine’s dreams of glory and ending her professional career.
Tackling themes of trust, power and obsession, the story picks up five years on when Justine, now aged 22, is a therapist at her old tennis academy, Longwood. But when Glenn returns to work at Longwood, Justine makes allegations of sexual abuse against her former coach, leaving her friends, family and colleagues to reconsider everything they thought they knew about the pair’s past success.
A tennis fan herself, series creator and writer Hania Elkington (The Innocents) had always wanted to write a sports drama – one that could examine the strengths and motivations of characters in high-stakes scenarios where a single talent is surrounded by a team that is entirely invested in their success.
Then around 2019, she began reading articles about the dynamics of the player-coach relationship and the psychologies at play when a player steps onto the court.
“That relationship can be transformational and fantastic, and it can hide transgressions and imbalances and very difficult interpersonal relationships,” she tells DQ. “I thought tennis was the perfect territory for me to write a sports narrative. It has action, it has stakes. It’s aspirational and full of money but, in the end, it’s a personal narrative. It’s not about the big cheque or the gold trophy. It’s about truth and survival and legacy. Those are all the themes that I’m interested in. So it is a sports narrative that conceals a very personal internal drama for one character and the intense, dramatic repercussions on everyone around you.”
As Elkington continued to write the scripts, several female sports stars came under the microscope, with tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu and gymnast Simone Biles speaking opening about their struggles with anxiety and other mental health issues.
“We felt quite excited that we could be writing a show that was very entertaining and dramatic, but also adding to the conversation at the right time,” she adds.
Setting the story against the backdrop of the tennis world, Elkington sought to unpick the relationships between players and coaches – and how healthy partnerships can turn toxic. A “story bomb” in episode three then opens up the drama beyond Justine and Glenn’s relationship.
“People are always interested to know what goes on behind the scenes, particularly after watching Wimbledon, which is such a beautifully curated image and so alluring, aspirational and rarified,” she says. “But then tennis was described as primal combat disguised as a vicar’s tea party. I think people like the tea party, but they’re also interested in the flip side.”
“It’s not just another police show,” says executive producer Jake Lushington from World Productions (Vigil).” It’s not another thriller and it’s not a fantasy or sci-fi piece. It’s trying to trying to talk about something that lots of us are fascinated with but we very rarely see reflected in drama.”
The police are present, not least in episode one when Glenn faces initial questioning after Justine’s accusations. But rather than follow the well-trodden path of countless crime dramas by focusing on the detectives investigating the case, Fifteen-Love adopts the perspective of Justine, whose memory of what happened is clouded by happier recollections of her relationship with Glenn and the passage of time. This means the viewpoint is much more subjective and ambiguous than it otherwise might have been.
“That leads to a dramatic through line that is more challenging and less clear, but I would argue much more satisfying and true to life,” Elkington says, “especially when you do reach that dramatic conclusion and see the fallout not just for the main character but for all of the characters around her. It was really important to create a lead female character who is, in the end, aspirational, relevant and relatable.”
“But also somebody who’s not straightforward,” adds Lushington. “Somebody who’s got their own issues and messes, who has their own perceptions of what they’ve been through and what’s happened to them that are quite conflicted.
“There isn’t an easy answer to what really happens. Lots of the things that are happening in society that we’re examining these days are not straightforward. They’re more subjective. They have more grey edges to them, but they’re also important to track down and really investigate because they are where things are happening in a way that they shouldn’t be.”
The subjective viewpoint of the series also reflects Elkington’s years of research, which involved speaking with coaches, players, survivors and their families.
But it was a piece of research relating to the UK’s Sexual Offences Act that would inform a key part of the series. The act states that it is illegal for an adult in a position of trust, such as a teacher or care worker, to be involved in sexual activity with a person who is 16 or 17 years old. However, until recently, sports coaches were exempt from that ruling, which meant it wasn’t illegal for them to enter into sexual relationships with young players and athletes in their care. That loophole was finally closed in England and Wales in 2022.
“That was an explosive revelation to me,” says Elkington, who also read books such as Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open and watched documentaries including Andy Murray: Resurfacing, about the former Wimbledon champion’s recovery from injury.
“Power imbalances and the transgressions of them in all walks of life are one of the most contentious and important conversations we’re having now,” the writer says. “It’s really important to look at what happens within those years that people don’t say anything and how those layers start to come away, and how those interim years can disguise both lies and truths and how and why those can eventually come to light so that people can recognise the experience.”
The structure of the series certainly keeps viewers off balance, as the timeline moves back and forth between Justine’s experience at the French Open and the present day, when she is out to prove there’s more to Glenn than his charming persona.
Elkington describes her protagonist as someone who’s “stuck in arrested development.” Her experiences have prevented her from moving on with her life, while her meteoric rise to stardom as the new hope for British tennis replays in her mind.
“It was really important to us to show how those two tracks are happening simultaneously so that when Glenn comes back into her orbit, all that hurt and bitterness, but also the memory of the joy and the love between them, all tune into this tangled mess,” she explains.
“It took a while for me to build up Justine. She’s a very layered character. The world of tennis likes to present as immaculate and gracious, rarefied and formal – and Justine Pearce is none of these things. She’s been cast out of the world of competitive tennis and she doesn’t feel like a figurehead that anybody would want to see in tennis. In fact, she’s considered at times a little bit of a disgrace. But she comes through for the sport in a way that’s really important.”
Finding the right tone for Fifteen-Love proved to be one of the biggest challenges facing Elkington when she sat down to write the scripts. The story tackles big issues, veering from what she describes as a “quite sexy, escapist sports show” to one with much colder, darker undercurrents. As the process continued, she always sought to stay respectful to the themes of the show will still being able to surprise viewers through twists and turns.
“That mindset that allowed me to access both sides of that tone, which I think made the show hopefully feel like quite an original flavour and draw you into a challenging watch that’s very rewarding,” she says.
While there is plenty of drama off the court, Fifteen-Love also features lots of action on it, from Justine playing in Paris to rallies between her and Glenn at Longwood and scenes at the fictional British Tennis Championships, in which fellow pros Renee (Harmony Rose Bremner) and Luca (Lorenzo Richelmy) compete later in the series.
Tennis is never featured for the sake of it, however, with each match sequence highlighting the hidden internal struggles facing the players behind the scenes. The opening, for example, shows how Justine was forced to withdraw from the French Open after injuring her wrist, while off-court emotions boil over more than once in front of cheering spectators.
With the support of the show’s tennis advisor, British former pro Naomi Cavaday, the production mapped out what could be done for real and what needed to be created using VFX in post-production.
“We weren’t going to do lots of face replacements on real tennis players with our actors,” Lushington says. “Instead, we decided to choreograph rallies without tennis balls, but with tennis rackets so that people could act it out like a fight sequence.
“It’s like lightsabers [in Star Wars]. There aren’t really lightsabers in the lightsaber scenes. We have that gladiatorial contest with tennis rackets, but without the balls, and then we CGI’d them in afterwards. That allowed our players to learn strokes, learn how to run and how to concentrate on their physicality being accurate as tennis player.”
“It will be known as the tennis show, but any scenes of tennis are about who’s winning or losing as much as they are about the emotional undercurrents running underneath that,” Elkington adds. “It’s really important that our actors can be convincing on the court. But what’s more important is that we get the best bite of that performance. That [approach to filming the tennis scenes] means that we weren’t compromised on that front, which was useful.”
Lushington praises the show’s young cast, particularly Hyland and Bremner, whom he says are “just fabulous.” He describes Hyland’s emotionally demanding role as one an actor might hope for in their 40s rather than their 20s. “But she carries it off amazingly. We’re really thrilled and really excited for people to watch her performance as well as the wonderful Aidan Turner. I’m full of admiration for them.”
Elkington and Lushington knew they had succeeded in creating believable tennis scenes when the series got a stamp of approval from one particular tennis figure at a preview screening.
“Judy Murray came along. She’s a big fan of the show and she said it looks terrific. I’ll let people make their own decisions, but if it’s good enough for Judy Murray, I do feel that we’ve done a decent job,” Elkington says.
Meanwhile, the writer is keen to stress that Justine’s experience is not based on one single account or real-life incident. Instead, the story is an amalgamation of everything she uncovered during her research, weaved together with fictional elements to create a character she hopes will resonate with viewers.
“I don’t have that responsibility to someone to tell their story absolutely accurately, so I can deliver what I think is the best dramatic through line for her, embracing different parts of different stories,” she says. “That was very freeing for me and for Ella as well.”
tagged in: Aidan Turner, Ella Lily Hyland, Emma Radacanu, Fifteen-Love, Gemini Sports Media, Hania Elkington, Infront Sports France, Jake Lushington, Judy Murray, Longwood, Naomi Osaka, Prime Video, Simone Biles, World Productions