Will love match be a British winner?

Fans of romantic comedy and tennis are in for a treat with Wimbledon. Director Richard Loncraine and star Paul Bettany spoke to Keiron Pim about the challenge of recreating the perennial British challenge for the men’s title.

Every year when Wimbledon comes around British tennis fans go through the same ritual. The hope, the expectation, the flag-waving and face paint… and the big question: can our latest great hope for the men's singles title defy the odds and do what no British man has done since 1936?

For the past few years Tim Henman has been saddled with the expectations of a nation; before that it was Jeremy Bates, and Roger Taylor back in the 1970s, while Chris Bailey from Taverham got the crowds going in the early 1990s.

Now tennis fans can relive the highs and lows of Wimbledon within a couple of hours spent in the comfort of their local cinema.

The new Wimbledon film stars Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst as two tennis players who fall in love during the course of the tournament at the All-England Club, and their love gives him the catalyst he needs to defy the rankings and progress through the rounds.

Made by Working Title, the production company behind Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, it follows a familiar course: bumbling Brit charms American woman and, without giving too much away, love wins the day.

And while it has received mixed reviews, it is sure to go down well with cinema goers who loved the above films.

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Dunst's character Lizzie Bradbury warns Colt that "in tennis, love means nothing" but by the time the feelgood climax has arrived that has been turned on its head.

The premiere on Monday was attended by stars including ex-champion Chrissie Evert and this year's Ladies' winner Maria Sharapova – whom director Richard Loncraine rejected for a role as one of Dunst's opponents before she won her title.

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is Bettany's athletic performance as Peter Colt, which he revealed was the result of intensive training with real-life Wimbledon champion Pat Cash.

"The tennis was a mammoth undertaking, which you suddenly realise when you see people move so beautifully and their bodies are so well organised because they have been doing it since they were four years old. At that point, I got a little bit scared of the whole thing."

Speaking at a press conference at the Dorchester Hotel in London's Park Lane – which is where the two tennis players meet in the film – Bettany and Loncraine revealed the secrets of making a sports movie that is also a romantic comedy.

"They are much harder than you'd think. All directors are arrogant and I thought it would be quite easy to do one," said Loncraine.

"And it's not just romantic comedy, it's got sport in it as well, which made it twice as difficult."

Bettany's showing in Wimbledon proves that he has what it takes to carry a lead role after impressing as a supporting actor to Russell Crowe in both Master and Commander and A Beautiful Mind.

Loncraine likened him to Cary Grant and Will Smith in that they all have "relentless charm."

While he may not yet be a major star, he has charm and charisma and great comic timing. This was as evident in the press conference as in the film, as he had an audience of hardened film hacks in stitches.

Bettany himself has never been a keen sportsman, so had to work hard to convince as a tennis pro. By the end of his intensive training he had almost reached professional standard – but he hasn't picked up a racquet since.

"I haven't got much interest in sweating, apart from…" he tails off amid laughter. "I'm not going to go into that.

"I did play football at school but, to be honest, I didn't really care whether the school won or lost. I didn't feel that commitment.

"Pat Cash said it was never the sensation of winning [that motivated him], he just couldn't bear himself when he lost. It was the sensation you felt that drove him. I thought that was interesting."

Bettany, on the other hand, claimed to have no particular career direction in mind when I asked what was his chief motivation.

"Cash! Great big piles of it. I haven't had much of a career plan. It's not much of a plan but I like doing different things. I just get bored really quickly, because otherwise you become a performing monkey."

Born in London into a theatrical family, he married American actress Jennifer Connelly in December 2002. Their son Stellan (named after Bettany's Dogville co-star Stellan Skarsgård) was born in August 2003. He'd be interested in sharing the screen with her as long as they weren't playing lovers.

"I would love to work with my wife but we'd have to find something where we really hate each other. It's like when rich people win the lottery: it's not the best story in the world."

Asked about his marriage, he said with just a touch of irony: "It's changed my whole life and I have become the person I always wanted to be.

"Because she is enormously plain to look at, I know when people look at us walking down the street they're thinking 'How did she snare him? It must be charity.'"

Despite having John McEnroe and Pat Cash on board as advisors, Wimbledon has been criticised from certain quarters for being unrealistic.

For instance, the film misses a round out of the tournament to make it snappier, has Bettany's semi-final on a minor court instead the usual Number One court, and some of the rallies are a little implausible.

Director Loncraine argued the critics were missing the point and said that artistic licence had to be allowed to create dramatic impact.

"It's very simple. The end of the movie had to take place on Centre Court. If we had played the semi-final on number 1 court it would have been really anticlimactic. I thought it was dramatically better to save it.

"I realised that rallies were the thing that everyone could understand whether or not they are tennis fans."

To save endless reshoots, the rallies were shot with the players hitting at an imaginary ball, which was added later through computer-generated imagery.

Bettany said that when balls were used, he hit the cameraman so often that he had to buy him bottles of whisky to apologise.

As well as advising, three-time Wimbledon winner McEnroe appears in the film in his current capacity as a television commentator.

"McEnroe was very hard to persuade to be in the movie. Very tricky. It's not that he is rude, he just sits there silently and gives you time to hang yourself," said Loncraine.

"He had been in a film before that wasn't very good and wasn't sure how this man from England would make something better."

But McEnroe was won over and congratulated Loncraine on getting it right after seeing the film.

REVIEW – see what Keiron Pim made of the film in today's Event magazine.

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