Borg vs McEnroe

Tennis buffs of a certain age can probably instantly answer the question which of the two superstars – Bjorn ‘Iceborg’ Borg and John ‘Superbrat’ McEnroe – won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1980, but if like me you’re a bit blah about tennis stats and facts but like a good sporting thriller, whatever you do don’t google the outcome in advance or you won’t get your money’s worth of excitement.

Borg was the world number one, hoping to score his 5th consecutive Wimbledon win. McEnroe was number two, the rising star who desperately wanted the top spot. Borg was the crowd’s favourite: a supercool self-effacing Swede who always stopped to sign autographs, treated journalists and fans politely and played like a relentless machine. McEnroe was the brash, foul-tempered yank whose rudeness and tantrums saw him booed whenever he walked onto the court, especially by English fans who saw him as the epitome of bad sportsmanship.

I read somewhere online that this 1980 match was not surpassed in excitement and suspense until the Federer/Nadal clash of 2008, and the final match, when it comes, is an edge-of-the-seat nail-biter, even for non-sporty me. Actually, to say I’m not a sports buff is an understatement: I never watch tennis or any other sport. The endless competition has always struck me as rather futile. To me there needs to be some human interest to make it meaningful and entertaining, as with that other terrific tennis movie Battle of the Sexes, which I also loved, although it was a more light-hearted, less powerful movie than this. Borg vs McEnroe gets the blend just right: a double bildungsroman* full of sturm and drang* culminating in a thrilling physical contest. Not only is this a winning cinematic formula, it’s also presents me with the perfect opportunity to use those two German literary phrases, something I’ve always wanted to do. Apologies for the wankery, but on this occasion they are precisely the right words.

Different actors play both Borg and McEnroe at various stages of their tennis careers, starting in childhood. Borg, it seems, was just like McEnroe as an adolescent – single-mindedly ambitious, unable to handle defeat, prone to destructive rages and liable to blame others for his failure. Luckily for him he is discovered and taken on early by coach and former Swedish champion Lennart Bergelin, played here by the wonderful Stellan Skarsgard.

We don’t see as much of McEnroe’s backstory, possibly because this movie is a mostly European enterprise. But it was a stroke of genius on the part of the Scandinavian, Finnish and Czech producers to cast Shia La Beouf as McEnroe. I’d always assumed, largely on the basis of his name which I wrongly attributed to a bogan inability to spell the French word for ‘beef’ correctly, that La Beouf was some dumb-ass American celebrity who got himself into movies. But I have since googled my way to enlightenment and find that he is of Cajun/Jewish descent and the name is kosher so to speak and I herewith revoke all hitherto unreasoning prejudice and declare that he is brilliant as McEnroe.

We see enough of his story to learn the interesting fact that McEnroe was a child maths prodigy, and that as a young player he admired the older Borg and emulated his moves.

Borg is played by an Icelandic/Swedish actor called Sverrir Gudnason, and all I can say is Chris Hemsworth and Travis Fimmel had better watch out because this nordic hunk would make a mighty fine cinematic Norse god or Viking warrior. There are delicious cameos featuring Vitas Gerulaitis and the English player Peter Fleming, whose friendship McEnroe casually destroys in the name of competition.

The credits also list actors playing Arthur Ashe and Ilie Nastase, but I missed them, unless it was in that one press conference scene where the media only want to talk to Borg and McEnroe and not the lesser lights.

If I have one quibble it’s that the actor who plays young Borg doesn’t look remotely like him, in contrast to the actor who plays young McEnroe, who looks uncannily like a young version of both the real McEnroe and La Beouf. And while I daresay that like me and the rest of the world (with the possible exception of Americans) you will find yourself wholeheartedly barracking for Borg, you will find that human nature being the complex creature that it is, even an unloveable brat like McEnroe can sometimes surprise us with sudden loveability.

  • Bildungsroman basically means ‘coming-of-age story’.
  • Sturm and drang means tortuous struggle – literally ‘storm and stress’.

This review was first published on Facebook in November 2017