A lively meditation on mortality and time, “The Last Match” takes place in the minds of two players during a hard-fought United States Open semifinal. Mr. Bethel plays Tim, an aging American contemplating retirement. Mr. Mickiewicz plays Sergei, his volatile Russian challenger. Ms. Upchurch has decided that while neither actor will need to try an ace or even hold a racket onstage, but both have to look like they could.
In the interests of authenticity, Ms. Carillo, resplendent in a Billie Jean King T-shirt and baseball jacket, gathered the actors together and taught them a few tricks. She showed them how to test the tension of the racket by hitting it against the palm, how to swat a ground ball and make it leap into your hand, how to strut back to the baseline after a successful point.
“You give them a little attitude,” she said. “It’s a ritual.”
She also showed them a delaying technique Maria Sharapova uses. “Pick at your strings,” she said, “that’s a good one.”
Though Ms. Carillo won the 1977 mixed doubles title at the French Open, partnered by her childhood pal John McEnroe, she was quick to downplay her expertise. “I didn’t play long and I wasn’t that good,” she said. “I grew up playing on the same courts as McEnroe. He was doing things I’d never seen anybody do.”
She remembered when she was 12 and he was 10, sitting him down and telling him, “You are going to be the greatest player in the world someday.”
“And he looked at me and said, ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
The actors seemed a lot less skeptical. Throughout the morning they toggled between eagerness and mild embarrassment as they quizzed Ms. Carillo about the life of a pro and practiced her techniques.
Natalia Payne, who plays Sergei’s fiancée, Galina, and who had never held a racket before, seemed a little overwhelmed. “As a first-time player on a court at the United States Open, start high, get Mary Carillo to train you, those would be my tips,” she said. Then she hung her head.
Mr. Bethel, best known as the bad-boy bartender on the CW comedy “Hart of Dixie,” seemed the more confident of the two, probably because he played competitive tennis as a teenager and has worked as a coach. Until fairly recently, he had secretly hoped to turn pro. Throughout the morning, he harbored a fantasy that maybe Rafael Nadal had somehow hung around after winning the men’s title the day before.
“I’d be like, ‘Hey, do you want a hitting partner?’ And he was going to be like, ‘Yeah!’” Mr. Bethel confessed.
But even with Mr. Nadal a no-show, Mr. Bethel appeared delighted, even awe-struck by his surroundings. He described this courtside rehearsal as “the most bizarre convergence of two separate dreams. I’m having to pinch myself pretty regularly.”
Maybe those dreams aren’t so separate. At least that’s what Ms. Carillo insisted. She drew multiple parallels between theater and athletics, insisting that tennis is “very creative” and that success in either athletics or acting requires total dedication. Ms. Carillo can speak with some authority, having appeared in the 2004 romantic comedy “Wimbledon.”
“I was fabulous,” said Ms. Carillo. “My two scenes saved that film. Just kidding.” (On that set, she took time out to help the actress Kirsten Dunst with her serve. “She wasn’t even bending her knees,” Ms. Carillo said.)
Though Ms. Carillo hasn’t played a tournament since Wimbledon in 1980, she said that she still woke up in a sweat thinking she had to prepare for a match. To play tennis, she said, “you put it on the line. You’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to be focused. It’s the same thing onstage: You’re up there. It’s on you. You can’t fake it.”
But faking tennis expertise is just what Mr. Bethel, Mr. Mickiewicz and Ms. Winters, who plays Mallory, Tim’s wife and a former Top 20 women’s player, will have to do. (Happily, Ms. Payne gets a bye.)
When he was younger, Mr. Bethel looked to “the gritty players,” he said. “I always liked the scrappy guy.” But to play Tim, Mr. Bethel said he took inspiration from more graceful players, particularly Roger Federer, the aging champion who is “fighting and sort of conquering time,” he said. (Mr. Bethel, who recently developed “tennis elbow in a major way,” hasn’t been quite so lucky.)
To take on Sergei, a role he created at the Old Globe in San Diego, last year, Mr. Mickiewicz looked to hothead players like the Australian Nick Kyrgios. “There’s a temper there and a self-destructive button,” he said.
Ms. Winters was feeling wistful about the women’s finalists, Madison Keys and the decisive winner Sloane Stephens, two unranked players who came roaring back after injuries in ways that her character Mallory does not. She began brushing up on her tennis as soon as she was cast. “My forehand is pretty decent, but my backhand and my serve definitely need some attention,” she said.
“My serve is probably top-notch,” Mr. Mickiewicz joked. He also congratulated himself on his “overall swagger” and the dour expression that the cast calls “tennis face.”
Ms. Carillo, watching him from the sidelines, approved. “He’s actually doing a pretty good job,” she said. “He’s faking the funk.”
Then she looked at his serve more closely. “Not that grip,” she murmured. “He’s not going to be able to pronate.”
“Well,” she said more cheerfully, “he doesn’t have to do that for the part.”
Continue reading the main story