Borg vs McEnroe (2017)

Janus Metz’s Borg vs McEnroe recreates Wimbledon 1980 and delves into the winning psychology of the two tennis rivals.

Love match

by Alexa Dalby

Borg vs McEnroe

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

As world-famous tennis players in the ’80s Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe seemed to be polar opposites – Borg dour and machinelike, McEnroe a volatile wild child. Their rivalry came to a head in the 1980 Wimbledon final where Borg was seeking his fifth win. It was a spectacular five-setter in which Borg saved seven match points.

Of course we know now that Borg won that epic final, so the film can’t create suspense about the result. Instead, it concentrates on the psychology of the two players that brought them together there. In flashbacks we see that just like the adult McEnroe, young Borg was driven and had violent outbursts of anger that almost put an end to his budding career – until a caution from his coach Lennart Bergelin), who played a hugely important role throughout his life (avuncular but tough Stellan Skarsgård) warned him he must never show emotion if he wanted to win. It changed his personality and he became ‘Iceborg’. What Borg vs McEnroe reveals is the the two men were, in fact, surprisingly similar underneath, both had a compulsion to win, and that gave them an instinctive understanding of each other as tennis players.

The film focuses mainly on Borg, showing him at different ages as he grows up, with one of his younger selves played (very well) by his son Leo Borg. Adult Borg (lookalike Sverrir Gudnason) comes across as a doleful Swede, almost tortured, not enjoying his fame, with an OCD obsessiveness about detail. One scene shows him and Bergelin testing 50 racquets the night before a match to find the one that is perfectly strung for that particular day.

McEnroe is given less screen time, though Shia LaBeouf is perfectly cast as the unpredictable, partying, loud-mouthed, argumentative American. In flashbacks we see his pushy parents trying their hardest to turn their young son into a high achiever, with a drive that made him believe himself to be unstoppable.

The focus is a recreation of that historic final that generates as much tension as it can, given that we already know point by point what happened. It uses tennis-playing doubles and shoots the game from various off-centre angles to disguise the fact that it’s not the real thing. Tennis fans look away now. Blending in real footage would have allowed us to see the real magic of two great players. From the commentary box overlooking Centre Court there’s excruciatingly bad English, Swedish and American dialogue, dumbed down to explain what’s happening.

Borg vs McEnroe casts an interesting light on the past of two extreme individuals but it doesn’t show tennis to its best advantage.

Borg vs McEnroe premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is released on 22 September 2017 in the UK.

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