Boy meets girl. Girl helps boy with tennis game. Boy goes on to reach the finals of the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Pretty simple, right? Until it came time to make that boy and that girl look like pros in front of a camera. Kirsten Dunst, fresh off shooting ''Spider-Man 2,'' showed up well prepared for the rigors of training: Her New Jersey family has always been athletic and she had long dabbled in the sport. ''I love tennis. My dad used to play with me,'' says Dunst, who portrays Lizzie, a cocky star in the Venus Williams mold. ''I liked the role reversal,'' she adds. ''My character is kind of the guy in the movie, really aggressive.''
Unfortunately, the bulk of the racquet work fell on her nicotine-addicted costar, who could be spotted compulsively smoking Marlboro Lights between action shots. ''I'd never played tennis before. I thought, 'This will be nice, a romantic comedy in London! A paid holiday!''' laughs Paul Bettany, who plays Lizzie's love interest Peter, a tour journeyman. ''Then six months of tennis pulled into view and you realize that it's an arrogant thing that you've agreed to do. It's like saying, 'Yes! I'd love to play Rudolf Nureyev! Let's ballet!'''
After months of training -- a good deal of it with former champ Pat Cash -- Bettany looked credible enough to take Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Which is good news for our friends across the Atlantic, who have been patiently waiting for a British men's Wimbledon champion -- even a fictional one -- since Fred Perry last turned the trick in 1936. In fact, it has become something of an annual tradition in the U.K. to watch London native Tim Henman make a futile run at the title. ''I think we were the only ones in England not rooting for Tim this year,'' says producer Eric Felner (''Love Actually''). ''Because, look, if your fictional character is supposed to get to the finals and it hasn't happened in 60 years in real life and it [actually] happens before your movie opens...well, that's a bit of a muck-up.'' Luckily, Henman was knocked out in the quarterfinals.
WHAT'S AT STAKE Bettany's chance to move from being everyone's favorite sidekick to the big romantic lead.