January 23rd, 2018
I’ve been a big fan of tennis for almost twenty years. It was during the 2001 Wimbledon championships that I first got drawn in to the highly athletic and psychological sport, as Tim Henman vied to become the first British champion in sixty five years. He ended up losing in a five set semi-final clash to Croatian player Goran Ivanišević, who remains the only man to enter the tournament as a wildcard and win the whole thing. I experienced the agony of defeat and the surprise of not knowing when the tide could turn, at any moment, on any point. The match was halted and restarted multiple times due to rain, which threw both players off and perhaps cost Henman his last shot at winning the big one.
That’s why I love tennis, because of the stories it can create. One one side you had Henman, searching to prove himself and to validate his own country’s tournament by giving them a home grown champion once more. And on the other, Ivanišević, who had struggled for years to win at Wimbledon, reaching the finals numerous times, and by 2001 had slipped so far down the rankings it was only as a wildcard that he gained entry to the tournament.
I love the sport, I love the one versus one intensity of the game. I love the immense precision and athletic ability required to become great at it, but the stories, the rivalries and the moments are what make it so special. One of the greatest stories in tennis history was the rivalry between Swedish world number 1 Björn Borg and American John McEnroe. It spanned numerous matches but was never more momentous than when they met in the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s finals.
Borg, having won the previous four tournaments consecutively, was on course to be crowned as the five time champion, while McEnroe was chasing his first. Borg was known as the Ice Man, cool, calm and collected, never any emotion on the court. He simply played tennis, and he dominated. McEnroe however, was the complete opposite. Hot tempered, foul mouthed, controversial. He was nicknamed “SuperBrat” in the UK, and his presence at the All England Club wasn’t exactly the most welcome.
When the 1980 tournament had reached its final, the only two men left were Borg and McEnroe. Ice and fire, steely and emotional. To tell you (if you haven’t seen it, or know of the outcome) what happened in the match would be spoiling things some what, but to say enough that McEnroe was booed when he walked out for the final, and managed to win the hearts of the crowd by the end is just one part of what made the match so special.
The 2017 film, Borg McEnroe (directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen), seeks to capture not just this historic, legendary tennis match that many call the greatest ever played (hotly contested by the 2008 Nadal/Federer Wimbledon final), but the inner workings of both Borg and McEnroe’s psyches during the tournament. Which I’m ecstatic to say, it pulled off wonderfully. Most tennis films are primarily focused on an element beyond the sport and the psychology that goes behind it. 2004’s Wimbledon was more about the romance between Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, and 2017’s Battle of the Sexes was more about the feminist movement Billie Jean King was spearheading in the 1970s.
Borg McEnroe (which is titled differently everywhere: Borg/McEnroe, Borg Vs McEnroe, or in Sweden, where it’s simply and probably more appropriately, titled Borg) acutely focuses in on the pressure that Borg was placing on himself to win Wimbledon again, and McEnroe’s frustration at being talked about more for his on court tempter tantrums than his tennis. If I could level any criticism at the film, it would be that it really is more about Borg, which for the most part, is fine.
We get extensive flashbacks to Borg’s childhood, and his (apparent, and this is where the stickler in me wants to know how true this all was) own foul temper as a young teen training in Sweden. The two young actors portraying the younger Borg were excellent, especially Borg’s own son Leo. These scenes paint a much broader picture of who Borg was, and everything that was leading to his fifth attempt at the Wimbledon title. Not only were they extremely well done, the placing and editing of these flashbacks was superb, dropping in and out of the current 1980 timeline of the movie at the right moments, to where you feel like you’re entering inside Borg’s own doubt-ridden mind.
As for McEnroe, not so much. We get a handful of flashback scenes to his younger self, but there’s not much meat to it and while they work well enough, the balance between the two “back stories” of the two men definitely feels lopsided. Shia LaBeouf was surprisingly convincing as McEnroe, and the casting seems like an obvious one, almost a ploy. However the word is that Shia approached the filmmakers about the part himself, feeling a strong connection with McEnroe’s early struggles as a misunderstood person in the public eye.
Another minor niggle I have is that some of McEnroe’s outbursts to the media and umpire/crowd on court feel just a little bit overdone. I could be off base, but I don’t recall seeing much footage of McEnroe going around telling everyone to shut the fuck up at every opportunity. Yet, Shia really brings a level of believability to McEnroe’s personality that is very watchable. You get the sense that he’s still just a kid, hungry and focused yet still a loose canon. What he loses in looking nothing like a young John McEnroe, Shia gains back in nailing the fiery spirit of him.
Sverrir Gudnason however, is the true revelation here, slipping into the physical resemblance of Borg as if the filmmakers had brought the man himself back from 1980 in a DeLorean. The likeness is truly startling at first, and a true testament to Gudnason’s good genes that he’s in his late thirties playing a man in his early twenties rather convincingly. His acting though is top notch, and he captures the restrained resolve of Borg immaculately. With Shia LaBeouf there’s a little bit of getting past the fact that it’s Shia LaBeouf, but with Gudnason, you just believe you’re watching Borg in front of your eyes, and that’s really quite exciting.
The editing is a true standout, and really puts the film up a notch for me. Not just in the timing of the different strands of both men’s lives that are woven throughout almost every couple of scenes, but the timing of the tennis scenes. Which for the most part do take a back seat to the inner workings of Borg and McEnroe’s mentalities off the court. This was a good move, as by the time we get to the climactic match between the two, the tennis truly takes center stage, as it should. The production design needs to be singled out too, as it felt very authentic to the time period without pushing it too hard to the point of distraction.
And if all of those elements being executed to such a high standard wasn’t good enough, we’re also treated to two outstanding supporting performances from Tuva Novotny as Borg’s fiancee, Mariana Simionescu, and the ever trusty Stellan Skarsgård as Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin. Novotny really conveyed a strong yet underappreciated support to Borg in Mariana, with a quiet restraint that moved me quite a bit. As for Skarsgård, he excels as the coach that only wants the best for Borg, but has difficulty in continuing to fulfill his role as the boy he once coached to stardom has now become his own man. The flashback scenes with Skarsgård’s Bergelin wrestling with a young Borg’s tempestuousness are among the best in the film.
Even though I knew the outcome of the match, the tightly wrought tension (which had been beautifully built, simmering and bubbling throughout the entire film) was literally palpable, and I found myself clenching and unclenching my fingers throughout. The unbearable pressure that both men are put under, both by the world and themselves, is finally released, not in an explosion, but in a slowly unwinding and mentally grueling fashion. Gudnason puts in an unforgettable performance here, and Shia is really not that that far behind, servicing (eh? … eh?) his part in the story exceptionally well, especially in his final moments.
I truly love movies that capture these lightning in a bottle sports rivalries (Rush, from Ron Howard, is a great one), the kinds that can’t be manufactured. They can be marketed and sold (like Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry so quickly was) but the stories of these rivalries are written on the fly, the magic moments appearing out of thin air, through personality, will, character, skill and heart. A masterful depiction of how great tennis can be, and easily the best tennis film ever made. If you can point me in the direction of one better, I’d gladly give it a look.