STARRING: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LeBeouf, Tuva Novotny, Robert Emms and Stellan Skarsgard.
WRITTEN BY: Ronnie Sandahl
DIRECTED BY: Janus Metz Pedersen
Much like any truly decent sports movie, Borg vs McEnroe isn’t really about tennis. That beautiful game serves simply as a backdrop, a driving force, for the true story of two legendary sporting professionals who come together at a crux point in their lives, both for their reputations, their relationships, and in no small measure their mental health: the 1980 Wimbledon Championships final on Centre Court, in London. If you were alive back then, you’ll remember an electrifying match, regarded by many as the finest tennis final in world history (not rivalled until Federer played Nadal in 2008). It was a deadlock between the four-time champion at the top of his game and the vibrant young upstart looking to take the crown.
That dynamic lies at the beating heart of Janus Metz Pedersen’s biographical picture, a clash between not just two cultures but two mindsets and styles. Borg is control, measured, described as a ‘machine’ by many who know him and in the press, but Sverrir Gudnason skilfully begins to unlock a man who has locked away for years the same kind of emotions which swirl around his opposite.
McEnroe is younger, angrier, determined to prove himself, and frustrated at being misunderstood by the world – seems perfect casting for Shia LeBeouf, huh? It’s funny how the life/art imitation can sometimes work wonders, as honestly its hard to imagine anyone playing McEnroe better here. If Gudnason captures that sense of quiet, broiling temperament Borg subsumes, then LeBeouf displays a firecracking, abrasive energy which works superbly in compliment.
Ronnie Sandahl’s script charts a familiar structure, beginning with the renowned 1980 final and tracking back to show Borg & McEnroe’s respective journeys through that tournament, while flashbacks fill out the two men’s formative years, childhood’s marked by a respective drive to get to that confrontation on Centre Court; one scene literally has Stellan Skarsgard’s coach drive a young Bjorn (played incidentally by Borg’s own son, Leo) down a highway as they plan his future.
The symbolism is clear: all roads lead to Wimbledon for both these men, with a level of manifest destiny swirling around them. Borg wanted to be the best from a very young age, a time when his McEnroe-like temperament threatened to get the better of him, while young McEnroe was geared to use his strong intelligence on a path by an ambitious family, and father, he always wanted to please.
Truthfully, Sandahl seems more interested in Borg’s psychology than McEnroe’s, perhaps because there’s more to mine; an intense level of controlled OCD which develops around rituals and repetition, the only way he comes to believe he can continue his winning streak, and a difficult relationship with the press and fame. This is the case with both men, it simply manifests differently; Borg struggles to communicate emotion and shrinks in view of adulation, terrified the bubble of his success will burst, while McEnroe wants the limelight, wants the adoration, but his own fiery temperament on the court constantly follows him wherever he goes – for him, people ask the wrong questions. Tennis is too much of a courtly, gentlemen’s game for bad boy antics to be rewarded.
Metz Pedersen conveys theme and idea well with quiet, restrained direction which nonetheless often manages to reflect the inner psychological turmoil of these two men well; his camera is often tight and claustrophobic on Borg, and more erratic when with McEnroe. If the script occasionally gives way to a predictable through line in terms of story and arc, Metz Pedersen’s secure hand, soft cinematography, and often strong editing (displayed none more so than the excellently put together final tennis battle between Bjorn & John) manages to keep the whole piece together, and for a biography about two men in what many would consider quite a sedate, drama-free sport, its often quietly riveting, filled with a surfeit of cracking performances from some skilled character actors.
Even if you’re not a tennis fan, Borg vs McEnroe is worth the price of entry simply for an exploration of two driven, obsessive and fascinating men who, in their desire to be the best and define themselves, almost lose who they are in the process. We have another tennis picture on the horizon soon in Battle of the Sexes, but it’s hard to see how Borg vs McEnroe won’t win game, set and match.
Borg vs McEnroe is now on general release. What did you think of the film? Let us know!