Review | Borg vs McEnroe

The story behind Wimbledon 1980, as Bjorn Borg tries to retain the title against the charge of John McEnroe

Promotional shot for the film Borg vs McEnroe (2017)
Curzon Artificial Eye

By Stephen Higgins | 23 September 2017

There's a refreshing maturity to Borg vs McEnroe.

In a manner similar to Moneyball and The Damned United, director Janus Metz wants to show us the context behind a famous sports story and the personalities who contributed to it.

Against the backdrop of Wimbledon 1980, we follow Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) in his pursuit of a record fifth singles title in a row. There, the stoic Swede is supported by fiancée Mariana (Tuva Novotny) and his long-time mentor, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard).

By that summer, Borg is well established as the world no.1 and an all-time great in tennis. However, the 25-year-old is struggling with the pressures of maintaining an unprecedented level of excellence, the attention of the world's media, and marketing men that wish to control his life.

If that isn't enough, John McEnroe (Shia LeBeouf), the fast-improving and fiery world no.2, has the Swede firmly in his sights. The New Yorker was better known for his on-court outbursts rather than his half-volleys at that point, something that would change come the end of that year's final.

As we have seen so often with tennis players down the years, Borg found himself in an impossible scenario. His unrelenting focus and drive elevated him above his peers and brought him to the game's summit. Unfortunately, even the greatest champions can only take so much intensity before the centre gives way mentally, physically or both.

Borg vs McEnroe gives us a four-time Wimbledon champion who's emotionally spent, attempting to stave off the charge of a formidable lefty seeping with the passion that he once held for the game.

To that end, Gudnason is well cast as Borg. The 39-year-old, who has primarily worked in Swedish productions, portrays a giant who is mentally waning even if his skills are still better than the rest.

Gudnason is helped by the fact that he is probably not well known to international audiences. This allows him to fully inhabit Borg's distinctive Fila tracksuit, long brown hair and beard.

This blank canvas is not an asset that Shia LaBeouf shares.

While I do believe that the Californian gives a good performance as one of his real life heroes, it was difficult not to think of him throughout as 'Shia LaBeouf playing John McEnroe'.

Skarsgard is good (as usual) as Bergelin, Borg's chief mentor from his teens to his twenties. Tuva Novotny also provides solid support as the troubled protagonist's other half.

The standout performance may be Bjorn Borg's son Leo, who gives a terrific turn as the younger version of his father. The 14-year-old really captures the style and strokes of his father on court and displays some real acting talent when called upon.

What I probably liked most about Borg vs McEnroe was the attention to detail and authenticity. Borg's unusual double-handed backhand, where he releases his racquet from the left hand after contact with the ball, looks perfect. McEnroe's mannerisms and playing style are right. Vitus Gerulaitis's frizzy hair is accurately awesome.

Metz clearly had two aims for the project. He wanted to show that Borg was far from the iceman he has long been characterised as, while there was also an underappreciated intelligence beneath McEnroe's pantomime persona. I think he succeeds in these goals.

The film also highlights how much support a top level players needs to thrive. It's likely that every great player has had an enthusiastic early coach, dependable parent/patron, accommodating partner or sometimes all three.

What I take from Borg vs McEnroe is how important the supporting cast is to a top player, and how an uncontrolled drive to win can be both a vital factor for success, and a dreadful burden when the balls stop hitting their spots.