Borg vs McEnroe: an underwhelming tale of tennis rivalry

The film concludes that these superficially dissimilar players are really the same underneath.

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Borg vs McEnroe is being released as Borg/McEnroe in every territory except the UK, which indicates that British audiences demand an adversarial aspect to their fact-based tennis dramas: less Frost/Nixon and more Alien vs Predator.

Whichever name you give it, though, the film still represents the least dynamic re-staging imaginable of two life stories and a Wimbledon men’s final. The temptation in biographical drama to reduce the subjects to simple psychological flashpoints (the thing this coach said, the way that parent behaved) should be resisted by anyone hoping to operate on an artistic plane higher than the average TV movie.

The director Janus Metz Pedersen and the screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl have no such qualms. Their problems begin with the explanatory opening titles, which proclaim that “the rivalry between Björn and John changed both men and changed the world of tennis forever”. The tone suggests a cross between fanzine and DVD blurb.

We meet Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) as he gazes from the balcony of his apartment. Peering over the edge, he notices that it’s a long way down. What are the film-makers trying to tell us? “Everyone wants to beat Borg, which makes him the loneliest guy on the planet,” someone explains. He’s gearing up for a showdown with upstart John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), who is the only real obstacle between him and a fifth Wimbledon title. The Swede needs everything in London just so. His coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), must hire exactly the same rental car as usual. His hotel room is left chilly to keep his pulse below 50 bpm. That’s just the tip of the icy Borg.

To find out how he became so cold and uptight, we travel to 1960s Sweden for the flashbacks. Armed with an orange-tinted nostalgia-cam, the cinematographer Niels Thastum shows the young hopeful practising against a garage door, and if the child actor bears a strong resemblance to the actual Borg, that’s no coincidence: he is his 14-year-old son, Leo. This is not the first casting of this kind (Ice Cube was played by his own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, in Straight Outta Compton) though it can only be inhibiting to the film. It would take a director less timid than Pedersen to probe too deeply into the father’s flaws and foibles in the presence of the son. It also shows the stamp of approval given publicly to the movie by Borg Snr to be somewhat short of impartial.

The young Borg is a lunatic on the court, hurling his racket and berating the umpire as savagely as the adult McEnroe. The crunch comes when he is about to be disqualified. Bergelin makes him a deal: Borg can carry on playing tennis only if he promises “to never show a single bloody emotion ever again.”

As this is a Swedish production, Borg is its centre of gravity, but we glimpse enough of McEnroe’s childhood to see that the American was shaped by his own youthful pressures. His father used him as a performing maths genius at dinner parties; when he got 96 per cent on a school test, his mother enquired after the missing 4 per cent. Parents like that are only good for one thing: having all the blame laid at their feet in a biopic.

In shots that resemble Gillette ads, Borg and McEnroe are shown brooding in the shower. Not the same shower, obviously. Though that would certainly be more interesting than watching heavily edited scenes of two actors with no special aptitude for tennis having a knockabout in front of a crowd of extras.

The film moves inexorably toward the conclusion that these superficially dissimilar players were really the same underneath. Cinema has a strong tradition of apparent opposites blurring into one another: actress and nurse in Persona, gangster and rock star in Performance, cop and killer in Manhunter. This is not that kind of movie. These are just two mutually respectful perfectionists with difficult childhoods whose relationship is explained as definitively as if it were a tennis match. But explanations belong in whodunits. “New balls, please!” goes the cry on Centre Court. In this instance, the film-makers are perfectly content to serve up the same old balls instead. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left

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