Q&A: Actor Alessandro Nivola on his tennis obsession

Eric Schuster | August 31, 2021

Award-winning actor Alessandro Nivola has long utilized versatility and perseverance during his rise to the top of his profession, as the entertainment world awaits his lead performance in "The Many Saints of Newark," the highly anticipated feature film prequel to the popular HBO television series “The Sopranos,” that opens Oct. 1. The veteran thespian of stage and screen also relied on that same trait combination to transform himself into a solid recreational tennis player. Nivola has tennis on his mind each and every day, whether it’s playing it, watching it or even bringing it into the workplace. Here’s some of his background and thoughts on the game he can’t get enough of.


Q: You are no stranger to picking up a racquet. When did you begin playing tennis and at what point did you know you would stick with it?


Alessandro Nivola: I started playing very young. My parents played often and I took some lessons, but I was never competitive with it as a kid. I grew up in rural Vermont and was naturally athletic, but the only sport I trained competitively in was skiing. I then played tennis in high school, sneaking onto the team through a sheer desire to join, but I didn’t have the technique to really put my game all together and was just eking it out on instinct. When I eventually moved out to Los Angeles to start my film career in the 90s, I completely overhauled my very old-fashioned looking game and started hitting in a more modern way. After a few years, I became obsessed and just wanted to play all the time. I couldn’t get enough of it.


Q: Obsessed is a pretty strong word. How do you mean?


Alessandro Nivola: I tend to think about tennis many times each day, even when I’m not playing. In fact, I did a film role several years ago where I decided to make my character obsessed with tennis. It wasn’t in the original script, but I had the character keep practicing his swing even without a racquet... even when he was just standing around talking about unrelated things. That’s now bled into every aspect of my real life! (Laughs.)

Alessandro Nivola and his wife, actress and director Emily Mortimer, at the 2019 US Open.

Q: Now that you feel you’ve progressed from a technical standpoint, how would you describe the more advanced aspects of your game?


Alessandro Nivola: Well, I’ve got a one-handed backhand, something I’ve never given up on and just kept adapting. That’s probably my strongest stroke. I try to get those big, wide-open wings as I finish the stroke, with a little Dominic Thiem in my head. The one-hand backhand to me is one of the most beautiful shots in tennis. You’re seeing a lot of pro players using it again. I want to help keep it alive! Overall, I’m 5-foot-10 so I’m not going to overpower anyone on the court; I’m more of a guile player. I use slice a lot and thankfully I still have a lot of speed. My forehand can be dangerous against opponents, but I do get into spells where I can’t find the consistency and strain to get it back.

Nivola strikes a one-handed backhand: "I try to get those big, wide-open wings when I finish the stroke, with a little Dominic Thiem in my head."

Q: What other pro players have influenced you along the way?


Alessandro Nivola: I’m a [Rafael] Nadal fan. I love that he feels he needs to “suffer” in order to succeed, that level of commitment. I just identify with that personally. Obviously it’s easy to appreciate the grace and ease as someone as naturally gifted as Federer displays, but there’s just something about that grinding attitude that I love. And the narrative drama of a Rafa match, it always seems to involve some precariousness of his lead… and then comes the sheer force of will that he uses to find a way through. He’s also insanely gifted like Fed, Djokovic and others on top of that, but his style is definitely particular and unorthodox.

On the women’s side, Iga Swiatek is my favorite right now. She’s equivalent to Rafa in style and mental attitude. I also love watching Jen Brady, she’s a very exciting player. In fact, I was recently filming out in LA with [fellow actor] Tim Olyphant and we were hitting some at the UCLA courts and the coaches there gave us some great insight about Brady’s intense training during her UCLA playing days. There’s also Coco [Gauff] who is so young, but she has the whole package. She’s class and I’m dying to know where her trajectory takes her. I’ve always followed the women’s game. Back in the day, I had a poster of Gabriela Sabatini on my wall when I was a teenager!


Q: As an experienced actor, do you personally see any crossover with your craft and tennis?


Alessandro Nivola: Definitely, yeah. When I began training to become an actor, the “Inner Game of Tennis” was practically required reading, covering things like concentration, relaxation, quieting of the mind, conserving energy and “being in the zone,” finding that balance between putting effort in and not overexerting yourself. All of those things are really a direct corollary to performing in terms of the process and the psychological journey you go on, especially as a film actor. The filmmaking process is so similar to a tennis match.

Q: In what way?


Alessandro Nivola: You’re putting the pieces of a puzzle together of your character’s story in the film, just like you piece together a match and begin to see the shape a match is taking. The further you go, the more and more you understand about your opponent—or in the case of acting, the challenges and obstacles involved and how to overcome them. If something isn’t working, you have to change your tactics. And inevitably there are certain moments that are more important than others.


On the court, the best tennis players are able to play those crucial points with a calm, a focus and an intensity that doesn’t create tension for themselves. That’s exactly what’s required of the actor at crucial moments that will be a keystone of your performance, whether it’s an emotional scene or a scene that the whole story pivots on. You know they are looming on the horizon and you need to rise up to them as they will define your performance in the film. Both very similar.


Q: Can you see some of that process play out on the pro tennis court?


Alessandro Nivola: Yes!  And it’s so fascinating to watch how different player personalities handle pressure moments. It’s so transparent when you understand the game. Each individual character comes through so powerfully in those moments—it reads all over their bodies and faces. And to follow a young player as they develop and see how they might change the way they handle those situations, and how being in those situations many times over the course of a career starts to build confidence in a player because they’ve been there before... That’s the entertainment for me.

Q: It seems some of the tennis bug has also caught on with the family. To what extent is it part of their lives?


Alessandro Nivola: We all love the game. My wife [actress Emily Mortimer] plays casually. My son Sam was actually more competitive playing tennis than I was as a kid, playing USTA tournaments and developing into a really good player. I couldn’t resist trying to correct his form when we would play together, so he stopped hitting with me until I promised to keep my mouth shut!  My daughter May is a big Coco Gauff fan and she’s just now starting at the McEnroe Academy on Randall’s Island. My kids don’t take my advice about much, even about acting. Both of them are now starring in an upcoming movie as the children of Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig. And they’ve never once asked for my help. But one thing we can all agree on is that there’s no better family outing than a night session at the US Open.


Q: What is your favorite US Open match that you've seen in person?


Alessandro Nivola: There is no parallel to the US Open men’s final in 2019. One of the best matches I’ve ever seen. Medvedev was unpredictable that year, breaking through as a top player.  He seemed to be asleep for the first two sets against Rafa, and then suddenly, he came alive to make it a five-set match and one for the ages.

Nivola has been a tennis player since the days of his youth, growing up in rural Vermont.

One of Rafa’s all-time most gritty performances. I can’t forget the moment when he won. He laid down on the court completely spent, not far from my view. After he sat down in his chair, there was so much emotion on his face; it was so profound. It really looked like he was going to cry. Just one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had, watching any kind of entertainment, sports or other.


Q: What makes the US Open vibe so special?


Alessandro Nivola: The players. One of my fondest memories was arriving at Flushing Meadows in 2015 for the men’s quarters. I came whipping around a corner and I nearly slammed into Richard Gasquet, who was doing his pre-match warmup right there in the parking lot. I apologized profusely, then sat and watched him finish his routine before he would step onto Ashe to play none other than Roger Federer. He was just alone out there, running in place with high knees, stretching his hamstrings, etc. It was like visiting an actor’s dressing room at a Broadway theater—you can’t believe this little dimly lit room is where the performers go when they exit out of the bright lights of the stage. I had a whole new appreciation for the hard work that these players put in behind the curtain of the biggest stage in the game—the US Open.

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