September 25, 2017
‘When he lost that game, I told my friends: “He is going to lose the match. And then he is going to quit tennis.” They didn’t believe me. But I just knew.’
A middle-aged man called Per had played in the same Swedish academy as Bjorn Borg – and he knew how the superstar’s mind worked. Borg had to be the best – or nothing at all.
Even in the delightful Swedish city of Gothenburg in the summer of 2017, Per had not forgotten the most significant moment of the Borg-McEnroe rivalry.
But guess what? That key moment – the eighth game of the third set in US Open final of 1981 – isn’t in the movie about the Borg-McEnroe rivalry.
See the credits roll at the end of “Borg vs McEnroe” and you suddenly understand why. It’s a Swedish production.
They just want to see their man covered in glory. They’re not so keen to see Superbrat get his own back.
That’s a shame, because I left “Borg vs McEnroe” wishing I had seen the movie they could have made, rather than the one I had just watched.
Since the film focuses on psychology anyway, why ignore the most inviting goldmine – the biggest psychological twist of all?
It’s still pretty good. The lead actors – Sverrir Gudnason (Borg) and Shia LaBeouf (McEnroe) are excellent – particularly the brooding Gudnason.
Hard as the movie tries, though, you still don’t get a true sense of the sheer intensity of the spotlight on Borg, around whom the screaming girls clamoured as though he were a rock megastar back in the day.
Meanwhile McEnroe is portrayed as being hated by one and all, when the reality was more complex.
Young rebels of the time saw him as an anti-establishment figure with whom they could identify. And others, who were older and supposedly more respectable, were sometimes secretly amused by his outrageous on-court antics.
But you need a hero and a villain, I guess. And once again, we need to bear in mind that this is a Scandinavian production, so McEnroe can never really win.
The tennis scenes are passable – though you wondered how either player could have got enough snap on their serve from the close-ups we see.
A mere technicality, you will say. Sports movies are not so much about the action itself, they are more about the characters.
Helps if the action tells the story of the characters and does it beautifully, though. A great film score helps to capture us emotionally.
Something was missing here, despite the brisk pace of that action. That something has a name – poetry.
The trouble is, the tennis scenes in Borg vs McEnroe are not poetic – not like the boxing scenes were in “Raging Bull,” for example.
Therefore they do not move or astonish the viewer, as sports scenes in movies should, but rarely do.
At least the tennis scenes in Borg vs McEnroe are not laughable, as they were in a certain tennis movie I could mention.
And this movie, as mentioned, correctly focuses on the psychology of tennis, since tennis is above all a psychological game.
At one stage McEnroe angrily tells a reporter that he doesn’t understand what it takes to play the game to the highest possible level.
What it takes, we learn, is commitment to the point of total obsession. Both Borg and McEnroe have an obsessive side to their characters, cleverly explored here.
So we soon start to understand that they are not so different after all, despite the icy cool of one, and the tantrums of the other.
The climax of the film is the Wimbledon final of 1980. Given the nationality of the people who made the film, the eventual winner – spoiler alert if you don’t know your tennis history – won’t be too surprising.
They do tell us, in the closing captions, that McEnroe won Wimbledon the following year and Borg quit a few months later. So why can’t we see that shocking ending, provided by the US Open?
If the movie is about two characters and not just one, then why don’t we see Borg win it all, have it all…and then lose it all, as the American anti-hero takes his revenge on home soil?
Remember, in that US Open final, Borg was serving to go 5-3 up in the third, when McEnroe began to lob him into oblivion. The Swede was crushed from that point on and never recovered.
Borg retired after that clash – at the tender age of 25. He had been the best. He knew deep down that wasn’t going to last. He was also sick of receiving death threats. Fame, he concluded, was more trouble than it was worth.
Back in Gothenburg in 2017, Per, a likeable, reasoned man, insisted: ‘Bjorn Borg was not the most talented player in our academy. But he worked harder than anyone else. He worked and worked until he succeeded. It wasn’t natural flare. But he became truly great, all the same.’
McEnroe had natural flare. And once the American had mastered the rest, including the mind games, Borg knew it would be an uphill battle for him.
Bjorn realised he might get exposed by that killer top-spin lob every time they played from then on. So he made sure they didn’t play any more. He couldn’t be left stranded at the net if he wasn’t even on court.
This sudden decision to quit tennis was, surely, the natural climax to the psychological thriller, with McEnroe coming of age and Borg, who was already a legend but desperate to win the US Open at least once, finally falling apart.
This was the dramatic twist in the tale, the most fascinating aspect of the psychological reality. And we never really get to understand that.
But it’s still an enjoyable movie – and it’s still worth a watch. Let’s give it three stars out of five, even four on a generous day, and be thankful it isn’t a one, or two-star travesty.
When will they make the movie about Federer and Nadal? Wasn’t it wonderful to see them playing on the same side in Prague?
Rivals always develop a strong bond, whether they like to admit it or not. Federer and Nadal aren’t as edgy as Borg and McEnroe – but they are even more popular.
And their story is incredible. Wouldn’t it make a great movie? What would provide the dramatic peaks?
Nadal winning Wimbledon in near darkness, reducing Roger to tears? Federer coming back from oblivion to beat Nadal in Australia in 2017, when retirement and middle age might have bene beckoning?
We don’t even know what the climax to “Federer vs Nadal” will be yet, do we? Could Wimbledon 2018 provide one more mindblowing, theatrical twist to surpass all others?
by Mark Ryan
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