It’s not something that I’ve ever been able to talk about on this blog before, but tennis is one of the great loves of my life. Alongside film, music and football, tennis is one of the things that I have been obsessed with since childhood. From the different styles of play to the enigmatic individuals whose tales and achievements make up the history of the sport, tennis has the power to grip me, and there is no denying that one of tennis’s greatest sagas is that of the infamous Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe rivalry. Although women’s tennis is my ultimate jam, and the cinematic God’s are making me wait a little longer for one of my most anticipated movies of 2017, The Battle Of The Sexes, Borg vs McEnroe had the potential to be the perfect way to kick off what seems to be a tailor made double interest double bill for the latter half of the year.
The film largely tells the story of the 1980 Wimbledon tournament, the year in which Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was gunning for his record breaking fifth title in a row, and young John McEnroe (Shia LeBeouf) was the up and coming talent gunning for his crown. Tennis history sees Borg and McEnroe as polar opposites in terms of their personas, the serene Swede being the ice cold cool customer, and the ‘super brat’ American unable to contain himself from outbursts on the court. The film, however, through ‘behind the curtain’ dialogue and the use of flashback to integral moments of, mainly Borg’s, but also McEnroe’s childhoods, knits together a message that these two icons were in fact more similar than you might think.
As a tennis fan, I was engrossed in the narrative. As a film critic, it’s fair to say that Borg vs McEnroe is just kind of okay. A predominantly Swedish made film, and a film that boasted an original title of simply Borg, it is no surprise that the picture focuses largely on the Swedish tennis legend, inserting McEnroe as more of a supporting character to complete the story. The use of flashbacks and other standard biographical techniques are comfortable if not slightly too safe, and I’m not entirely sure that somebody not as versed in tennis history as I would fully understand the impact of the situation occurring on screen. At under two hours, the film is pleasantly snappy and economic in an age where every biopic seems to be nearer to three, and it also possesses a tone quite unlike many of its genre. It’s no secret that Bjorn Borg was a tortured tennis soul, and the film reflects that by refusing to present the amped up, adrenaline busting type of narrative that one might be used to. Rather than triumph (though there certainly is some), you feel exhaustion and utter relief because that is precisely the set of emotions that Borg felt. On that level, then, you have to say it’s a success.
Often cited as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, the level of drama is certainly high, but there is just something about the filming of tennis, especially when you are trying to be cinematic about it, that doesn’t quite translate like other sports. Perhaps this is why we have a hundred brilliant football, American football, basketball, rugby and athletics films but very few tennis ones. In the grand scheme of things, however, and with only the infinitely middling Wimbledon (2004) to immediately compare, Borg vs McEnroe certainly gives audiences a more cerebral, mature tennis movie experience than they might have had before.
The film is boosted immensely by the performances of its two leading men. I don’t know what kind of voodoo has taken place, but Sverrir Gudnason is the living recreation of 1970s Bjorn Borg, it’s seriously uncanny. Gudnason carries much of the film with a strong presence, mostly silent and mostly contemplative. For a character who lets so little be shown, the actor succeeds in conveying a lifetime of tension with just his eyes and his physicality.
You will not be surprised to hear that Shia LeBeouf is great at playing a character who is abrasive, volatile and at times downright rude. John McEnroe has been a divisive figure in tennis over the years, and whilst I must admit that he isn’t my cup of tea, LeBeouf does an excellent job of portraying more than just the grating, angry side that we have all seen in archive footage of the player in his prime. LeBeouf adds some colour and pace to the film and never takes his characterisation in to the realms of parody or caricature. We have all heard a million different “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!” impressions before, and Shia’s is certainly one of the most authentic and not in the least stupid.
Overall, the fact is that tennis fans are an underrepresented demographic in terms of media and content outside of the actual playing of the sport, so this was something of a treat for me and it will be a treat for anyone else who loves the history of the game. A good film, but not a great one. I must say, though, my cinema predictably played the trailer for the Battle Of The Sexes before Borg vs McEnroe began, and OH BOY am I excited for that!