Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe

May 16, 2018

John McEnroe (right) shakes hands after beating Björn Borg in the final at the National Tennis Center in New York on Sept. 13, 1981
Credit Ron Frehm / AP Photo

A lot of movies have been made about football and baseball. But professional tennis? Not so much. But a new film about the clash of two tennis titans comes to southwest Michigan. WMUK’s James Sanford has this review of Borg vs. McEnroe. It will be shown at the Riviera Theater in Three Rivers on Saturday, May 19.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tennis became a very sexy sport. Behind the powerhouse backhands and killer serves were fascinating personalities, such as the dynamic Chris Evert, the hard-driving Jimmy Connors, youthful dynamo Tracy Austin and the fierce Martina Navratilova. Yet, for many fans, the two figures who towered over everyone else on the court were Björn Borg and John McEnroe, a pair of superstars who seemed to have nothing in common, aside from their mastery of the game. No wonder the press often used the term “fire and ice” to describe them.

McEnroe was the fiery one, who hailed from New York City and exemplified many of the stereotypes about New Yorkers. He was pushy, brash, feisty and frequently foul-mouthed, throwing tantrums on the court when the game did not go his way and screaming at referees with whom he disagreed. His behavior at Wimbledon – and his infamous catchphrase, “You cannot be serious!” - so mortified the British press that they dubbed him “Super- Brat.”

No one ever would have levelled those kinds of charges at Björn Borg. The Swedish sensation always seemed in complete control on the court, routinely demonstrating grace and poise even during the most heated matches. He was frequently compared to a machine, operating without emotion and with much precision. Unsurprisingly, the media took to calling him “Ice-Borg.”

When Borg and McEnroe faced off in the finals at Wimbledon in 1980, it was not merely a clash of the tennis titans – it was a remarkable study in personality contrasts. That’s certainly not lost on Swedish director Janus Metz, who has used the now-legendary match as the centerpiece of Borg vs. McEnroe, a compelling study of what was going on behind the facades of the two men.

The screenplay theorizes that perhaps Borg and McEnroe, despite their personas, were not so very different underneath it all. Borg, played with assurance and an appropriate tinge of frostiness by Sverrir Gudnason, began his career as the same kind of short-tempered, unruly competitor as McEnroe and it was only through his understanding coach, played by Stellan Skarsgård, that he learned to channel his rage and fury into fueling his performance instead of upstaging it.

Both men also have their overwhelming obsessions. For Borg, it’s sleeping in near-frigid rooms and meticulously testing out the strings on each racket he uses. As for McEnroe, when he’s not consumed by his desire to win, he’s constantly trying to analyze and scrutinize Borg’s behavior, perhaps looking for an elusive Achilles Heel or perhaps hoping to uncover some secret he can steal for his own purposes. McEnroe is played by Shia LaBeouf, the former Disney Channel idol and Transformers star who, like McEnroe. has also been known to make a spectacle of himself in public. LaBeouf is absolutely terrific in the role, capturing McEnroe’s intensity and making room for a bit of vulnerability and uncertainty when he’s away from the courts and the cameras.

The movie wraps up, of course, with a recreation of the face-off at Wimbledon, and it’s slickly shot and edited, capturing the highlights of the match and the tense, electrified atmosphere. But it seems almost anti- climactic in light of what’s led up to it. The behind- the-scenes drama in Borg vs. McEnroe is so absorbing the game itself seems a bit overshadowed.

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