Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)

“Resistance is Futile, or Borg vs. Borg”

The poster for Borg vs. McEnroe (2017), a Scandinavian film about the 1980 Wimbledon men’s tennis final directed by Janus Metz (alas, no relation), states that it is “the first truly great tennis movie.” I’m not sure whether that’s true, nor why it would matter. Indeed, Borg vs. McEnroe doesn’t even strike me as a sports movie. Instead, it is a razor-sharp portrait of what the quest for excellence looks and feels like, and I can assure you that it looks and feels awful.

Figure #1: Poster art for Borg vs. McEnroe (Janus Metz, 2017)

The real events on which the movie is based are the stuff of sports dreams: Swedish superstar and the world’s number one ranked men’s tennis player of the late 1970s, Bjorn Borg is attempting to win the Wimbledon tournament for the fifth consecutive year. His rock star status, and the subsequent popularity it entails, is threatening to cause Borg to crumble.

Given what a frustrating and cerebral game tennis is, this is the worst thing that could befall Borg. Golf and tennis are horrifying games because, no matter what one’s physical and mechanical prowess, one’s mental state shot after shot is what determines whether one will win or lose, and lose is what one almost always does.

Borg was known for his mental toughness, his calmness on the court, always awesome, but at times robotic. The 1980 Wimbledon final serves as a useful case study because Borg’s opponent was a diametrically opposed personality, a young American hothead named John McEnroe, at the time the second ranked men’s tennis player in the world.

McEnroe threw an atomic bomb into the middle of the tennis world, particularly at Wimbledon, one of the last great refuges of white, patriarchal privilege. Players were only allowed to wear white demure outfits, and were referred to, and expected to act like, ladies and gentlemen.

As the flashbacks in Borg vs. McEnroe depict, McEnroe was a horrible human being on the court, spitting, swearing, and screaming at the umpires and line judges. Whereas Borg hides from publicity, sneaking into a bar to have a cup of coffee as a way of evading his adoring fans, McEnroe embraces fame.

Figure #2: Televised coverage of McEnroe fighting with an umpire

Figure #3: John McEnroe amid a temper tantrum on the court

Figure #4: Bjorn Born hides from his fans in a bar, drinking coffee

International playboy and another world-class tennis player, Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms) takes McEnroe out partying. Conversely, later in the film, Borg visits Studio 54 in New York, at the time the central location of American orgiastic decadence, standing immobile in disbelief at what he’s seeing.

Figure #5: Vitas Gerulaitis takes McEnroe out partying

Figure #6: Borg at Studio 54

While the film’s title is misleading—its moniker should be “Borg vs. Borg”—one key to its success is that McEnroe is played by Shia LaBeouf, a popular Hollywood movie star, whose marquee films are among the worst of contemporary Hollywood.

Figure #7: Borg’s reflection caught in a mirror as he prepares for a tennis match

LaBeouf portrayed the annoying son of the beloved Lucas-Spielberg matinee serials hero in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and the ever-screaming Sam Witwicky in the endless series of Transformers movies, one of which, Dark of the Moon (2011), may rank among the most execrable of all Hollywood cinema.

Metz’s casting of LaBeouf is a stroke of genius. It allows him to focus the film’s emotional attention on Borg, using LaBeouf’s awfulness as shorthand for McEnroe’s. But this is the film’s magic trick. By the end, it becomes clear that Borg and McEnroe are one and the same, astonishingly talented tennis players passed through the same sausage grinder of pressure and popularity. Their differences ultimately made them better characters in a world of capitalist marketing, not oppositional human beings.

Unlike McEnroe, dominated by a spectral father, Borg is trained by Lennart Bergelin, played by Stellan Skarsgard. By far the most talented actor in the film, Skarsgard allows the film to focus on the paternal trainer’s sculpting of Borg as a child into a great tennis player.

Figure #8: McEnroe and his father play chess

Figure #9: McEnroe’s father silently looms behind him

Like McEnroe as an adult, Borg as a child suffered the inevitable temper tantrums on the tennis court, driven by one’s own bad play, but expressed via arguments about line calls. Bergelin successfully strips Borg of all this bad behavior, producing the number one male tennis player in the world.

Figure #10: Borg as a child amid a temper tantrum

Figure #11: Lennart Bergelin uses violence to strip Borg of his childish tantrums on the tennis court

In an understated performance, the unknown Sverrir Gudnason as Borg makes us feel every bit of pain suffered by a person set on a course of excellence, a path doomed to destroy everything else about one’s life.

But by the film’s third act, a very engaging presentation of one of the great confrontations in all of sports, the film reveals Borg and McEnroe to be reflections of each other, the hallmark of all great individual rivalries. McEnroe spews out the rage caused by the pressure of being better than everyone else, while Borg represses it. In the film, unlike in real life, Borg seems ready to explode in every frame. Borg’s tension-filled body is the film’s motor.

Figure #12: His body ever taut with tension, Borg drapes himself off his balcony atop the skyscraper apartment in which he lives in Monaco

In the match, McEnroe won the first set, Borg the next two, producing a penultimate fourth set that ended in an insanely long tie-breaker which McEnroe won. Borg won the fifth set, and his fifth straight tournament title, but by the slimmest of margins.

Figure #13: McEnroe drags himself up in the middle of the fourth set tiebreaker he would go on to win, 18-16

The film ends there, but an end title tells us that McEnroe defeated Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon men’s final, and that Borg retired insanely early, in his middle twenties, at the height of his career. It is a decision only a truly great human being could have made, bucking unimaginable pressures from all sides.

In the middle of their epic confrontation, as McEnroe is beginning to lose his focus, Borg whispers to him to relax and play the game to his full potential: “It’s alright. This is a great match. Just play your tennis.”

It is an astonishing moment: only a grand master would be able step out of the moment, amidst the chaos of battle, and know that it is better to be able to play someone of equal excellence to yourself than merely to win.

Instead of their clichéd, destructive nonsense about winning, coaches in all sports across the world should be teaching this lesson above all others. A great confrontation of skill, regardless of the winner, honors not only the sport, but all humanity.

Figure #14: Borg encourages McEnroe in the middle of their epic match

In the film’s closing scene, McEnroe and Borg meet at the airport and hug each other. They would become close friends, a bond forged by that rare moment when excellence confronts its doppleganger.

Figure #15: Borg and McEnroe hug at the airport after their astonishing match is over

Borg vs. McEnroe tells a riveting story of how an intimate connection was welded between rivals. It is a mature film, aware that its theme has almost nothing to do with tennis, and everything to do with the human capacity, against all odds, to achieve excellence in a world of mediocrity.

–Walter Metz