Film Review: Borg McEnroe
In every generation there is always a debate on the greatest tennis player of all time (GOAT). In this generation, the ball tosses between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In the past, fans rooted for Pete Sampras or Boris Becker. In the 1980s, the raging rivalry was between Swede Bjorn Borg and American John McEnroe. The two players were polar opposites in terms of on-court temperament – the former icy cool, the latter mercurial and infamous for his temper tantrums. The juxtaposition of the frenemies reveals how they were more alike than one realised at the time.
Director Janus Metz crafts a docudrama-style biopic that retraces the build up to the 1980 Wimbledon men’s finals and the epic face-off between Ice Borg and Superbrat. Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay touches on the growing pains of the talented prodigies and the diametrically opposite training they experienced.
Sverrir Gudnason plays the older Borg convincingly and has an uncanny resemblance (including the slight hunch) to the sports star. The tennis star’s son Leo Borg plays the younger Borg (age 9-13). Shia LaBeouf wears all of McEnroe’s attitude and serves up a solid, albeit less internalised, performance.
In 1980, at just 24 years of age, Borg is chasing his fifth successive Wimbledon men’s singles title. (The Centre Court of Wimbledon, as it was then, was apparently recreated in Prague.) Borg is hoping to make history but he’s threatened by the younger, rising star McEnroe. The American enters the tournament as a player to watch but he’s the underdog with the crowds, unpopular for being ungentlemanly while playing a gentleman’s sport. (McEnroe’s legendary flowery language suffers the bleeps of the censors, puncturing many dramatic scenes.)
It helps enormously with the film experience if you do not recall that match or its result. I didn’t and it certainly helped with building suspense and tension as the camera gave an aerial view of the grass court, zoomed into a ball landing on the fault line or tracked into the faces of the sportsmen.
Metz respectfully captures Borg’s discomfort with stardom. Indeed he shoots the parts with the Swede with a patient lens, giving those scenes an art-house feel. In contrast, the American’s moods and relationships are more frenzied and Hollywood-like.
In Swedish and English, Borg McEnroe also features Stellan Skarsgård as Borg’s mentor Lennart Bergelin and bit parts by actors playing other tennis players on the circuit including McEnroe’s long-time doubles partner Peter Fleming and Vitas Gerulaitis.
One of the delights of this Nordic production is the period detailing. The 80s were the heyday of headbands, long hair on men, tight-white shorts and wooden rackets. The production design, costumes, music and editing enhance the emotions of that climactic final match between two of the world’s greatest sports heroes. It makes up for some of the preceding blandness which may not matter to tennis fans and sports lovers.