Borg vs McEnroe brought out the best in tennis rivals

Borg vs. McEnroe. Directed by Janus Metz. Starring Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf. Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Mine was not a tennis household, but even I remember the legendary 1980 matchup between tennis great Bjorn Borg and hotheaded second-seed John McEnroe, a match considered one of the greatest contests in tennis history.

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Whether or not you know the outcome of the Wimbledon match – which would either give Borg a record fifth win or McEnroe his first ever – is irrelevant: you’re a few internet-search keystrokes away from the movie spoiler. More importantly, Janus Metz’s film isn’t so much about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as it is an examination of the mental toll on young athletes chasing greatness.

Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is a superstar of the sport by 1980, dodging autograph-seekers and screaming female fans everywhere he went. Known for his elegant, restrained style of play, Borg is dubbed “IceBorg” in the press. McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) is his polar opposite, already known for tearing expletive-laden strips off umpires and tennis officials and tossing racquets with regularity when he arrives at Wimbledon, aged 21.

But the athletes were more alike than they seemed.

Flashbacks to a younger Borg (played by Borg’s own son and spitting image, Leo) show him methodically hitting balls against his garage door and having spectacular meltdowns during match play, perhaps owning to the relentless class bigotry he received: “In tennis the way you win is just as important, it’s a gentleman’s sport,” says a club official, who bans young Bjorn for six months.

Swedish Davis Cup coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgaard) rescues the boy. “Promise to never show a single emotion ever again,” he counsels. It’s advice that would make Borg both a champion and a nervous wreck: he won his Davis Cup matches at age 15 and became an instant celebrity, but by 1980 he is racked by anxiety, compulsive behaviours and superstitions behind the scenes. (Borg retired from tennis at age 26.)

Scenes of McEnroe’s childhood show limitless pressure from his parents: why did he only score 96 per cent on a test? Why can’t he spit out answers to multiplication problems in the six digits? It’s no wonder he goes on to abuse officials, talk show hosts, even his family and friends, and earn the moniker “Super Brat” in the press. LaBeouf may not be a dead ringer for McEnroe, but he is great in a role that plays off his own occasionally volatile, headline-grabbing persona.

By the time the story’s climax comes, we feel so sorry for both men that it doesn’t matter who wins.

The match itself included a 34-point tiebreaker and lasted four and a half hours overall. Director Janus Metz’s depiction of it will satisfy those of us who don’t know our love from our lob, but doesn’t capture the athleticism and stamina of the day, instead relying on close-ups and overhead shots for perspective on the game.

The two athletes function as islands unto themselves throughout the film but in the gruelling final they almost trade places – meshing into the symbiotic spectacle that was – as McEnroe finds reserves of calm (even after being booed on the court) and Borg gets uncharacteristically unpredictable.

There are factual details absent that might have added to the trim 100-minute runtime: the fact that Borg had to travel three hours by train in order to train with his coach, and that he dropped out of school at 13 to work on tennis full time. McEnroe, in contrast, went to prep school and to Stanford. Peripheral characters (the hard-partying Vitus Gerulaitus, in particular) are a welcome addition.

Metz’s film leaves us with sympathy and curiosity about the sport and the characters that defined the sexiest decade in tennis history.

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