The film, centered on the 1980 Wimbledon final, explores the clash between not just two players, but also two lifestyles, personalities, and worldviews.
John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) is angry eight days a week. On the tennis court, he shouts, cusses, and spits. He fights with the referee. The crowd boos him; he turns around and screams. A talk-show host introduces the “brash New Yorker” as “the worst representative of American values since Al Capone”. McEnroe smiles; he loves the limelight.
If McEnroe is a firecracker waiting to be lit, then his competitor Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is a damp matchstick. The champion of four consecutive Wimbledon titles, Borg is the current world number one. He has numerous fans; girls swoon over him. Yet he wants to be anonymous in public, hiding his face by wearing a cap. Borg’s never upset; he’s never angry. He’s calm and quiet, observing the world with the indifference of someone who has discovered Truth.
The biographical sports drama Borg McEnroe, centered on the 1980 Wimbledon final, explores the clash between not just two players, but also two lifestyles, personalities, and worldviews. Borg’s coach Lennart (Stellan Skarsgård) trained him to believe in “pure perfection, zero emotion”. Growing up, Borg was loud, rude, and unruly. Lennart turned the boy into a sponge who soaked up everything and drained it on the court. McEnroe grew up in a disapproving household. His mother didn’t see his 96 in Math, only the missing 4 that could have made him perfect. His father treated him like a calculator, urging his guests to ask his son difficult multiplications at the dinner table. When the two meet, they distill years of training, rage, and grievance into mind-bending tennis.
Like many in the showbiz, sports stars hide behind a façade. They’re constantly acting, for journalists, opponents, fans. An intimate sports drama should reveal more, but filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen and writer Ronnie Sandahl confound person with persona. Borg and McEnroe must have stuck to their images on tennis courts, in press conferences and interviews, but were they never different in private? Not according to Pedersen. Borg is as shut in public as he is in private. McEnroe’s impudence doesn’t change either.
Pedersen also employs a trick that betrays the audiences’ trust. Much of the film’s first half alternates between Borg’s past (where Lennart discovers and trains him) and present (where he’s playing Wimbledon). When 15-year-old Borg disobeys his coach, he’s scolded and shoved. Borg leaves the court and runs into a forest. He stops in front of a tree and lashes it with his tennis racket, lashes it till the strings come off. A few scenes later, Borg fires Lennart in London during an intense argument. The segments unfold like cause and effect. Viewed in isolation, the latter lacks context, as Borg has learnt to respect Lennart over the years. Further, someone as level-headed as him taking such a drastic decision, in the middle of a big tournament, doesn’t add up.
What does? The acting. LaBeouf, who revels in controversy, must have identified well with McEnroe. He lives the part with such raw intensity that it looks like he’s playing himself. His McEnroe brims with brute energy, threatening to explode without a warning or provocation. Borg’s demeanour, in contrast, reveals so little that you’re always on the lookout for a gesture, a facial twitch, a sign – anything – to help unravel him. A lesser actor might have made Borg inaccessible and opaque. But Gudnason is translucent, appearing within reach but ultimately elusive.
Borg is the film’s centerpiece. It spends more time with him, as he watches childhood videos, plans his future with his fiancé, or battles self-doubt. McEnroe’s interiority is less evident. His father joins him in London, but they hardly interact, so we don’t see a different, more vulnerable, side of him. He fights with his friend who just calls him “unlikeable” and leaves.
Borg McEnroe’s last 30 minutes – a potential adrenaline-fest where sport fist-bumps cinema – contain all the ingredients of a memorable climax. But relying too much on rapid cuts, top-down shots, close-ups, and slow motion, Pedersen and cinematographer Niels Thastum struggle to capture the essence of the original match. They’re more interested in making this piece dramatic, so they focus on the players and discard the game. Its mechanics are understood only through the commentary and scorecards, rendering the film’s most crucial part expository.
But Pedersen’s film is smart enough to not pick a side. He is more interested in how we see the two men, who are as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as our perceptions of them. Our favourite players reveal a lot about us; they reflect our identities. The question is not, as a character puts it, “Whom do you support: Borg or McEnroe?” but, “Who are you: a gentleman or a rebel?”