Review: Borg McEnroe

Directed by: Janus Metz Pedersen
Written by: Ronnie Sandahl
Starring: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellen Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Robert Emms
Released: November 16, 2017
Grade: B

Borg McEnroe
The tennis achievements of Swede Björn Borg and American John McEnroe have been thoroughly documented.  Borg won 11 grand slam singles titles.  McEnroe wasn’t too far behind with 7.  Borg spent 109 weeks atop the world rankings.  McEnroe edged him out with a total of 170 weeks.  Borg won 64 career singles titles.  McEnroe finished his career with 77 wins.  No one could argue that both are legends in the game.

The title may suggest these two had a long, intense rivalry but that wasn’t the case.  Their careers only intertwined during a very narrow window in the early 1980s.  Borg retired in 1981 at the age of 26 – incredibly young for someone still in the prime of his career.  McEnroe was just coming onto the scene around that time and was still competing well into the 1990s.  They met only 4 times in grand slams – twice in 1980 and twice in 1981.

Brought to the screen by Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen, Borg McEnroe takes us behind the scenes in the lead up to the 1980 gentleman’s final at Wimbledon.  It was the first time these two would face off in a grand slam final and the storylines wrote themselves.  Borg, ranked #1 in the world, was trying to become the first man to win 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles.  McEnroe, ranked #2 in the world, was attempting to build on his US Open title the previous year and claim his first Wimbledon crown.

The tennis scenes in Borg McEnroe are its least interesting element.  You’re looking at two actors run around a court and hit a CGI-generated tennis ball back and forth.  Even with a bit of moody music, it’s not particularly suspenseful.  There’s no substitute for the real thing when it comes to sport.  You can jump on Youtube and watch highlights from the actual match complete with authentic reactions and commentary. 

Where this film does succeed is the way it delves into the background of these two very different individuals.  Borg was a shy man who struggled with fame and preferred to remain inconspicuous.  It was a Catch-22.  The more tournaments he won, the more he had to deal with adoring fans and the curious media.  He was like a pop star in Sweden.  To try to calm the growing pressure he placed on himself, Borg developed a number of borderline-psychotic superstitions.

McEnroe was the complete opposite.  He loved being the centre of attention and wanted journalists to appreciate and value his talent on the court.  He yearned to be one of the world’s top tennis players and not someone who was living in Borg’s shadow.  Unfortunately, his on-court arguments with umpires and linespersons had hurt his reputation with the public.  Crowds would be cheering for his opponent in most matches – a fact that he struggled to deal with.

Told using a mix of flashbacks, Borg McEnroe features some clunky, overdramatised dialogue.  Characters speak as if they’re fortune tellers with lines like “you’ll win Wimbledon one day and be the number 1 player in the world but no one will like you.”  That said, the film provides insight for anyone interested in the world of professional sport and the different paths that exist to become a champion.  Both Borg and McEnroe mad mistakes but they harnessed the lessons learned in pursuit of greatness.

Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason (Monica Z) has an uncanny resemblance to Borg and is a good fit for the role.  We haven’t seen much from Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) in recent years but he delivers a similarly worthy performance as the anxious McEnroe.  While the real Borg and McEnroe didn’t have much involvement in the development of the script, it’s a nice touch that Björn Borg’s own son plays the teenager version of him in the film.

It’s not often that the tennis and film worlds collide.  Up until a few months ago, the last mainstream “tennis movie” to reach cinemas was Wimbledon with Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany back in 2004.  Now we’ve had two in the space of 8 weeks – Battle of the Sexes and Borg McEnroe.  I guess the adage is true – when it rains, it pours.