Tennis is known for its great rivalries, but one that still continues to fascinate, inspire, and intrigue fans of the sport was the one between Björn Borg and John McEnroe. The new film “Borg vs. McEnroe” directed by Janus Metz explores this by focusing on the two all-time greats and their volatile personalities and how one kept it hidden from view while the other certainly did not.
Borg is played by Sverrir Gudnason who with his longish hair and ice blue eyes certainly plays the part well. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Borg was viewed as a sports god, or in this movie’s case “Jesus of tennis” if we go by the actor’s looks. If Borg was a god, McEnroe, played with fierce determination by Shia LaBeouf enters this film as something like Satan incarnate. The younger McEnroe with his temper tantrums and obscenities hurled at tennis officials becomes the hated bad boy of tennis, although he really wishes the press would ask him more about his game than his behavior. Despite his bravado, McEnroe though is shown having his own doubts, especially if he can really beat Borg as Wimbledon in 1980 begins with Borg seeking what was then a record fifth title knowing that he’ll probably have to beat McEnroe to achieve that incredible feat.
Leading up to that, we’re given flashbacks into how both men grew up, but most specifically with Borg and his relationship to his coach Lennart Bergelin played with steely grace by Stellan Skarsgård. Bergelin who was also something of a father figure to the young Swede immediately senses that Borg could be great, really great. But despite his talent, Borg’s temper threatened to derail his early career until Bergelin told him to basically keep a lid on his volatile personality. Borg did so, apparently by keeping to multiple rituals like sleeping at night in very cold temperatures, keeping his pulse rate low, and other idiosyncrasies related to McEnroe by his pal and also tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis played in convincing fashion by Robert Emms.
While McEnroe has no trouble telling everyone how he really feels, chair umpires included, Borg struggles with his inner turmoil, not just in his past but in his present. Borg feels ambivalent about being a huge star and often openly tells his soon to be wife Mariana Simionescu played by Tuva Novtony that he thinks about doing something else in life. Borg also tries to cope with the pressures of being expected to win yet another Wimbledon and clashes with Bergelin to the point that he fires Bergelin for a brief time during the tournament.
When the long awaited showdown finally happens with McEnroe in the final, the actual match becomes the climax of the film, like an extended car chase scene at the end of an action thriller. Director Janus Metz does a impressive job of making the tennis played between these two actors look very real, something that is not easy given that tennis is one of the hardest sports for actors to pretend to appear to be great at on camera.
The end, as we know, is that Borg prevails in five sets to win his fifth Wimbledon title. Yet we, unlike fans at the time, also know, that this victory is also the beginning of the end of Borg’s career who later retired at age 26. Why Borg chose then to stop isn’t explored in the film but if it had, it might have helped give the film more of an arc and explanation into Borg’s personality. In some ways, ending the film at the peak of Borg’s success just adds to the overall mystique of Borg.
Neon is the U.S. distributor of ”Borg vs. McEnroe”, and they are the company who released another recent sports bio-pic ”I, Tonya”. However, ”Borg vs. McEnroe” is very much a limited theatrical release with simultaneous streaming availability. This film though is not getting the same amount of attention as last year’s “Battle of the Sexes” featuring another famous tennis rivalry between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Shia LaBeouf is the biggest star here, and though he gives one of his better performances in some time, that, and his recent eye-opening interviews while promoting the film havent done much to raise interest. To speculate why, I would think perhaps it has less to do with the actual film than its subject matter. Borg and McEnroe certainly created one of the most famous and contrasting rivalries in the sport, but it’s a rivalry that has been the focus of multiple documentaries before.
Despite that, ”Borg vs. McEnroe” offers an evocative, if not always complete look into what drove Borg to become one of the all-time greats and also what perhaps drove him to leave the sport at the height of his success, making him still one of the most celebrated and fascinating men to ever play the game.