What does it take to become a real-life heroine? New film Unraveling Athena explores this question through the journey of the women who have reached the summit in tennis.
Adam Lincoln
April 10, 2019

MIAMI, FL, USA – A new feature documentary about the WTA's World No.1 players has launched on to the international film festival circuit ahead of wider release later in 2019.

Titled Unraveling Athena – for the Greek goddess of tactics and skill, wisdom and strategy – the film is highlighted by interviews with 20 women who have achieved the WTA World No.1 ranking in either singles or doubles, from Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber. 

The independently-produced project has been a four-year labor of love for Zatopeka Films, headed by the husband-and-wife duo of director Francis Amat and producer Paloma Gongora, who were inspired by a chance meeting with a famous fellow Spaniard in Miami in 2014.

"One day, when Paloma and I went to collect our kids after school, to our surprise, we happened to meet Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, picking up her children. Our families bonded immediately," recalled Amat, who is a well-known composer and musician in Spain.

"I am a very curious person and so, as we were getting to know each other, I asked Arantxa thousands of questions about her career. She is a really nice person and she told me a lot of stories about her journey in tennis. I then read her biography in one sitting."

Monica Seles, Francis Amat - Unraveling Athena
Monica Seles with Unraveling Athena director Francis Amat

An idea started to germinate. What was it that all champions shared? What if, despite different nationalities, generations and life circumstances, they all experienced the same journey?

"I started writing down notes about the commonalities of the journey of a tennis champion, starting with all the normal stages they had to pass through on the way up the mountain – family and childhood, education, adolescence and social life," said Amat. "But I also wanted to know how tennis first entered her world, what it was like playing junior tournaments, how she felt about the team around her and the relentless training. Then, as she rises up the rankings, learning to deal with the pressure, mind games, rivalries, emotions and ultimately managing money and fame.

"I knew there was a story for a film there."

In need of a framework that would help him to interweave many individual tales into a unified narrative arc, Amat turned to the writings of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose ‘Hero’s Journey’ examines heroic archetypes and has influenced the structure of hundreds of films. In practice, this would mean that rather than ask overly specific questions, Amat would provide each champion with the same 12 talking points, or signposts, and invite them to share as little or as much as they wished.

Kim Clijsters - Unraveling Athena
Kim Clijsters on the Unraveling Athena set in Paris

The concept pinned down, the Zatopeka team hit the road, conducting interviews in London, Paris, Miami, Madrid and points in between. Locations on the odyssey ranged from hotel conference rooms to luxury furniture showrooms and even Tracy Austin's living room at her home in Los Angeles. 

A particularly unique connection was made with a champion that Amat and his team couldn't even meet in person: Aussie great Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

"We didn't have the funds to fly the crew to Australia, but Evonne is an incredible human being, and I very much wanted her in the film," Amat explained. "So, I hired a team in Australia and I interviewed Evonne via Skype from Miami, while she was being filmed in Melbourne and my director of photography was in Madrid."

"It was more like an army - I was being a little soldier."
Jelena Jankovic on her early training

While securing face time with other iconic No.1s such as Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Sania Mirza was key, Amat's aim was to create a 360-degree view of a tennis star's journey. 

Among others Steve Simon, current CEO of the WTA, and former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, who embraced the project at the outset, were interviewed. So too were tennis agents, coaches – including the legendary Nick Bollettieri – and even a neuroscientist, Dr Russell D. Hamer, who provided insights into the workings of a champion’s brain.  

Olympic Gold medalist Monica Puig was interviewed as a representative of the players striving to reach the summit; former USTA President Katrina Adams shared her insights; and broadcasting legend Mary Carillo recited an extract from the poem ‘Ithaca’ by Konstantinos P. Kavafis. 

"It is important to realize that we have real-life heroines to inspire and model after," said Amat. "These tennis champions have impacted the lives of millions, men as well as women, on and off the court, both during their professional tennis career and after they retire. They have had, and continue to have, more impact on people' lives than any fictional characters."

GALLERY: From Evert to Osaka: All 26 WTA World No.1s

The documentary has already started to collect awards, including Best Edit at the Manchester Film Festival – a nod to the stunning use of archive footage provided by the WTA, as well as still images from renowned tennis photographer Art Seitz and the family albums of the interviewees. 

The film enjoyed its US premiere at the Indie Pasion Ibero-American Film Festival in Miami on April 6, where Amat was joined by Sánchez Vicario – who earned an executive producer credit – for a Q&A session with the sellout audience. 

Screenings of Unraveling Athena are set to take place at the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival in Los Angeles (April) and the Oxford International Film Festival (May), while the documentary has also been nominated for an award at the Around International Film Festival, which takes place in Paris in June, coinciding with finals weekend at Roland Garros.

Follow the film’s journey on Facebook @unravelingathena and Instagram @unravelingathenafilm