“…don’t let Metz’s propensity for the obvious and the unashamedly Hollywood deter you. Borg vs McEnroe is most certainly a terrifically entertaining film.”
One of the many great things about the innocence of youth is that you create your own narrative to play alongside landmark events, even if it flies somewhat in the face of popular opinion or indeed what actually happened; a prime example of which being the Borg vs McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980.
I was aware that my dad was vehemently siding with the ice-cool Swede and that “McEnroe” was to him and many others, essentially a dirty word.
I suppose that John McEnroe and his propensity for ‘ripe’ language and poor sportsmanship wouldn’t have placed him particularly high in any well-meaning parent’s list of ideal role models for their kids.
In my mind, though, I somehow managed to position Mr McEnroe as the poor, misunderstood, put-upon underdog, up against the machine-like oppressor, Björn Borg. Even then, I was distrustful of ‘the man’ and of popular opinion, and never having been adverse to adopting a contrary stance, watching Janus Metz’ thoroughly entertaining (if rather titularly-uninspired) Borg vs McEnroe, it really brought into sharp focus just how contrary and potentially inaccurate in fact my particular take on events had been.
Borg was a hugely successful and universally loved tennis player whose cool exterior, it would seem, belied his true personality. Borg, unbeknownst to most, was in fact prone to histrionics, explosive outbursts and tantrums, ironically the same character traits that had earned John McEnroe (initially at least) the moniker of world’s most universally reviled sports personality – or words to that effect.
Of course, to the world of professional tennis, Borg was unrecognisable from this former volatile incarnation of himself. His coach and mentor, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), had seen to that, ensuring that Björn would internalise all of this rage and release it only through his tennis. This Borg did of course, to devastating effect, resulting in four straight Wimbledon titles, and the opportunity to notch up an unprecedented fifth against the fast-rising American star, John McEnroe.
Janus Metz’s film not only tracks the build up to this epic encounter, detailing the two players’ massively different approaches to big match preparation, but delves back in time by way of a number of flashback scenes, demonstrating how the players had made their way in the game and came to be two of sport’s most prominent characters of the 1980’s.
Sverrir Gudnason does a good job in demonstrating the cool, calm and collected nature of Borg, a perception that was only true, it seems, on a rather superficial level, masking well a man increasingly uncomfortable and at odds with his fame.
Shia LaBeouf, on the other hand – all punk rock, head bands and resplendent in a Ramones T-shirt – is superb as the hyper-active, twitchy, McEnroe; the Alex Higgins of the tennis world, if you will. His portrayal is that of a man on the defensive. Quick-to-anger, this coiled spring of a character, much like Borg, used his explosive tendencies for the benefit of his (if no-one else’s) tennis performances. Unlike Borg, however, McEnroe was obviously not one for internalising anything!
Metz’s film is not without its faults. One of a few particularly clunky moments occurs during the film’s re-enactment of the classic final. A cigar-smoking Swedish commentator up in the Centre Court’s gantry, enthuses about one of the sets going into a tie-break, and then proceeds to spell out to the watching / listening millions, kindergarten-style, exactly what a tie-break is, and how its point scoring system works. Whilst it’s of course important to acknowledge that not every one of your target audience is all-knowledgable with regards to the rules of the game, it’s this kind of pandering to an audience’s lowest common denominator that does tend to cheapen any claim that Borg Vs McEnroe may have to be anything other than a superficial glossy, token overview of the game of tennis.
Perhaps that was in fact the director’s intentions?
Either way, don’t let Metz’s propensity for the obvious and the unashamedly Hollywood deter you. Borg vs McEnroe is most certainly a terrifically entertaining film.
Living in an age as we do now in which sport is increasingly about the big business angle – and being happy to acknowledge that the 1980’s was far from a time of purity and innocence – Borg vs McEnroe nevertheless whisks its audience along on a refreshingly rose-tinted trip down memory lane, to a time when not just tennis, but sport in general, was inundated with engaging characters, and the notion of sport for sport’s sake was very much alive and well.