Film Reviw: Borg vs McEnroe

Tennis rivalry peaks in a famous 1980 Wimbledon match that thrilled fans.
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It was a rivalry that splashed over the press and TV, a battle between the Swedish tennis machine Björn Borg and the American hothead John McEnroe. Borg vs. McEnroe offers an almost clinical take on the competition, more precise than passionate despite a strong performance from Shia LaBeouf.

Borg (played by a grimly efficient Sverrir Gudnason) and McEnroe (LaBeouf) were ranked first and second, respectively, in the lead-up to the 1980 championship in Wimbledon. Borg, the youngest winner ever at Wimbledon, was aiming for an unprecedented fifth straight title there. McEnroe, often treated like a vulgar upstart for his outbursts and tirades during matches, was greeted by boos when he arrived on the court.

Writer Ronnie Sandahl focuses more on Borg than McEnroe, using flashbacks to sketch a troubled childhood in Stockholm (with Borg played by the athlete’s own son Leo) and training as a teen under coach Lennart Bergelin (a typically excellent Stellan Skarsgård).

McEnroe gets some flashbacks as well, mostly with his disapproving parents. His appearance on a laughably inaccurate version of a late-night talk show betrays the film’s Eurocentric leanings.

The script suggests that despite their different backgrounds, the two were quite similar—in fact, almost identical in their focus, drive and emotion. Borg may have come off like a machine, but he was constantly struggling to internalize what Bergelin called his “rage, fear and panic.”

Borg managed to channel his feelings into his playing, a strategy McEnroe learns to adopt when the two finally meet in the Wimbledon finals. Fans consider their fourth-set tiebreaker one of the pinnacles in the sport.

Unfortunately, neither lead here is a professional-caliber player. The filmmakers try to finesse the games, using bursts of shots and angles cut together in a blur. The result is a kind of shorthand for tennis, an impression rather than a record of the match.

The film as a whole feels like a sketch, an impression, as well, only one without much of a point of view. You couldn’t tell from watching this that McEnroe had already defeated Borg three times before they met at Wimbledon.

Metz, who directed part of the second season of HBO’s “True Detective” as well as a 1996 documentary about the match, points to some potential targets for the players’ problems, but doesn’t build a strong case for what their personalities were really like. His go-to shot is a close-up of Borg or McEnroe staring blankly at a middle distance.

McEnroe is a great fit for LaBeouf, who has faced his own problems in the press. The actor gives an engaged, thoughtful performance that ends up surprisingly sympathetic. Gudnason plays Borg like a cipher, which make sense given the film’s overall approach. It’s still a cold and unrevealing portrayal. It’s up to the accomplished Skarsgård to bring some heart to the film. His Bergelin, a former player himself, is filled with the nuance and contradictions that the movie as a whole lacks.

Still, it was a great match, and in Borg vs. McEnroe you get a sense of what it was like to battle personal demons before the entire world.

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