Borg vs McEnroe: A tennis fan's delight
A well-made biographical sports drama that captures the enduring magic of tennis' greatest rivalry
The remarkable story of Björn Borg and John McEnroe is an oft repeated one, and forms an enduring legacy that will be spoken about forever. Their opposing personalities, their unlikely friendship, and their travails and triumphs on and off the court, have captured the imagination of tennis fans for generations. But it was that draining Men’s Wimbledon Final of 1980 that changed those men irrevocably. The film, which does a fine job of bringing to screen all that is on public record, is inspired by one of the greatest tennis matches to have ever been contested. At the time, Björn Borg was looking to win his fifth consecutive title at the All England Club. He was already the proud possessor of 9 Grand Slam Singles titles, and was also the No.1 male tennis player in the world. An outward coolness exuded the seemingly unflappable Swede, and he was a sensation around the world. His main challenger was a temperamental young American in the form of John McEnroe, a supremely gifted player who wore his emotions on his sleeve. The prim and proper crowd at Wimbledon had christened the man ‘Superbrat’ for all his outrageous antics towards match officials and fellow players. The press had a field day pitting the humble and classy Swede against the loud-mouthed and brash American.
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny
Director: Janus Metz Pedersen
One thing the film tries to do is to get under the skin of both men; who and what they are when the cameras and crowd aren’t dogging their every move. While Borg and McEnroe were always considered to be chalk and cheese, they were undoubtedly classic outsiders. Biographical sports films can always be a tricky proposition. Many of them excel in the acting department, and they recount a compelling narrative, but it’s the depiction of the sport itself which remains unconvincing. The tennis in Borg vs McEnroe is as good as it can be under the circumstances, where long rallies suddenly cut to close-ups of the leads’ sweaty faces. Sverrir Gudnason has an uncanny resemblance to the legend he plays, and captures that aura, intensity, and allure that Borg presented to the world. Though it seemed like the bilingual film was more fixated on Borg than on his counterpart, Shia LaBeouf does impress as the tempestuous New Yorker who would go on to become one of the game’s most unforgettable stars.
It was reported recently that John McEnroe wasn’t particularly pleased with some of the personal anecdotes in the film, and that he would have liked for the creators to consult both players during the production process. That is indeed a shame, because the personal narrative would have come off as so much more authentic if they did. Supporting the leads are Stellan Skarsgård (Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin), and Tuva Novotny (Borg’s understanding and supportive wife, Mariana Simionescu). Both characters put up with the genius’s flare-ups and unreasonable demands in the most selfless of ways, knowing that deep down, he is a one-of-a-kind individual who needs to be treated differently in order to attain his true potential.
Scenes go back to both men’s childhood in an effort to decipher what made them who they are. John’s parents are both proud and pushy, expecting only the best from their young son. Borg’s emotional outbursts as a youngster on Sweden’s indoor courts threaten to derail his budding tennis career, but Bergelin (Sweden’s former Davis Cup Captain, and a three-time Wimbledon Quarter Finalist) takes a special interest in the child prodigy, and convinces authorities that the angry young man is a champ in the making. The famed footage of Borg knocking against the garage door in his suburban neighbourhood is recreated beautifully. John McEnroe yelling “You cannot be serious” at the Chair Umpire and exchanging heated words with the equally angsty Jimmy Connors, make for great viewing too. It was perhaps the greatest rivalry in tennis; not only because of the iconic 1980 Wimbledon Final and their contrasting personas, but because of so much more. They defined an entire era in a field that boasted of so many legendary players. And they will always go down in history as the battle of fire and ice. Borg vs McEnroe pays homage to just that.