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‘Borg vs McEnroe’ Is Too Honest to Be a Good Tennis Movie

The biopic painstakingly re-creates the tics and sparks that made Björn Borg and John McEnroe’s rivalry so compelling, but its faithfulness restricts the film’s ability to transcend history

Neon/Ringer illustration

Björn Borg’s rackets always had to be in tune. Before matches, he and his coach, Lennart Bergelin, would lay out 50 black Donnay frames, each strung so tight that the guts would occasionally snap on their own in the middle of the night, and test the pitch of each stringbed. Then, Borg would turn the thermostat to 12 degrees Celsius, strip naked, and go to sleep.

The Swede’s superstitions were legendary, and they showed that perhaps his also-legendarily stony demeanor wasn’t necessarily a reflection of inner calm. It’s not surprising, then, that in Borg vs McEnroe, the biopic centered on the match between Borg and John McEnroe at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships, Borg’s habits get more than a passing mention.

Early in the film, Shia LaBeouf’s McEnroe walks into a nightclub with fellow pro Vitas Gerulaitis (Robert Emms), who explains that Borg is a dormant volcano. Each year he jumps on his rackets and sleeps in the cold, Gerulaitis tells McEnroe; he uses the same rental car and lives in the same hotel room, practices on the same court, and bans his parents from every other Wimbledon, all in an attempt to tread along the razor’s edge. McEnroe, who has idolized Borg since childhood, and unsuccessfully aspired to the Swede’s frosty, gentlemanly style, is intrigued. For the first time, he begins to realize that the champion is relatably flawed.

In the real 1980, Borg walked onto the grounds of the All-England Club a rock star. He’d won five French Opens and four straight Wimbledons, and, at 24, had already established himself as one of the sport’s all-time greats. He was also a sex symbol. Since being mobbed by schoolgirls during his first appearance at Wimbledon in 1973, Borg, with his blond mane, chiseled jaw, and icy confidence, had earned as much of a reputation as a great tennis player as he had as a sort of racket-wielding superhero. He looked perfect, he played perfectly, and he (seemingly) wasn’t worried about a damn thing. McEnroe, the second-ranked player in the draw, was Borg’s aesthetic opposite. He was an American, a southpaw, a serve-and-volleyer with a one-handed backhand who loved screaming at umpires, opponents, and anybody else within earshot. Where Borg’s hair flowed silkily under his headband, McEnroe’s frizzed and leaped away from his head in every direction, in his words, “like Bozo the Clown.”

In this case, the script wrote itself. The 1980 final, now debatably regarded as the greatest match in the history of the sport, was storyteller’s catnip, and the film re-creates it beautifully. If nothing else, Borg vs McEnroe is an aesthetic dream: It puts the glamour of the late-’70s/early-’80s tennis boom into crisp focus, giving the old-world pop of the wooden racket a surround-sound retouching. The film is a joy to look at, and a pleasure to listen to, but for tennis fans, it presents nothing new. The most compelling sports movies or television series aren’t really about sports; the most entertaining tennis movie in recent memory is 7 Days in Hell, the Andy Samberg–led mockumentary that wasn’t so much about tennis as it was a riff on the tennis world’s eccentricities. Unfortunately, the early lives of Björn Borg and John McEnroe were only about tennis and the fear of failure. This isn’t Miracle — there are no geopolitical implications here, only personal ones. It’s the paradox of the tennis movie: Dramatic real-life narratives don’t always make for great drama.

Borg vs McEnroe opens with a mishmash of eras: First, we see the two on Centre Court, trapped in the middle of the film’s climactic match. Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) in his signature pinstriped polo and lined headband sitting contemplatively, anxiously at his chair during a changeover. McEnroe sweating as he walks along the baseline. Television commentary hovers over the scene. Borg’s service toss crests, beginning the match’s fifth set, then we are watching a home video from 1960s Sweden.

A common story from Borg’s childhood tells of the young Swede practicing his strokes at home, rallying against a garage door. He would imagine that he was playing a Davis Cup tie against the United States. If he hit the ball back against the wall five times, he won a point for Sweden; if he failed, he lost the point to the Americans. The attention to detail in the movie’s re-creation of this story is remarkable, as is its adherence to the idiosyncrasies and appearances of the main characters.

Gudnason and LaBeouf do brilliantly in replicating the quirky playing styles of their historical counterparts. Borg’s loping stride, his loopy forehand, and his groundbreaking two-hander (really sort of a one-and-a-half-hander) look like they were ripped straight from archived footage, as does McEnroe’s staccato, attacking game.

LaBeouf is the film’s standout performer, even though his character is not at the narrative’s heart. His attempts to imitate McEnroe’s legendary outbursts are admirable, if unsatisfying. (The “You cannot be serious” incident has been replayed so many times that any tennis fan can likely recall the timing of McEnroe’s inflections, whines, and growls too well to be astounded by an impression. Also, the film moves the rant to take place during McEnroe’s 1980 semifinal match against Jimmy Connors instead of his first-round match at the 1981 tournament against Tom Gullickson. If we’re going to rely on detail, let’s be consistent.) Where LaBeouf thrives is in McEnroe’s quieter moments. As Gudnason’s Borg points out, McEnroe’s angriest moments are when he is most in control. When his voice quiets, his neuroses run wild, and we see that in LaBeouf as he treads the baseline before a point, or as he scrawls out a projection of the tournament draw on the wall of his hotel room.

Borg’s demons, though, are at the film’s center. After we are pulled away from the garage door, we see the Swede, shirtless with a gold link around his neck, looking off the balcony of his Monte Carlo apartment, not into the perfect view of the Mediterranean, but down to the ground, many stories below. He puts his arms on the balcony’s railing, crosses his legs, pulls his feet off the floor, and tilts toward oblivion. Then, with the anxiety still hovering over him, he begins doing dips.

Many viewers will know of Borg’s troubled history. After losing the 1981 Wimbledon final to McEnroe, he began to unravel. That year, he would also lose to McEnroe in the final of the U.S. Open, a tournament he never won, in a match where he, uncharacteristically, appeared to give up. After the loss, he walked off the court silently and left the arena without addressing the press or waiting to accept his plate. He was 25, and he’d never play tennis at a major again.

In the following years, he would enter financial trouble after dabbling in fashion design, and in 1989 he would be hospitalized after overdosing on sleeping pills. Borg was not the ice king that he played on TV. In flashbacks to his time at a youth academy, Borg is shown throwing tantrums and angrily swinging his racket at the air, a prodigy restlessly pacing in a cage of his own design. Like Roger Federer after him, Borg would go from angry kid to regal champion, but unlike Federer, Borg never seemed to actually enjoy himself on the court, or find meaning away from it. Neither did McEnroe, who also burned out in his mid-20s.

The movie spends most of its time hitting the audience over the head with this dynamic: that Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry was able to blossom into a friendship because they saw that they both hated and needed tennis. After the match ends, we see Borg and McEnroe bumping into each other at the airport. They don’t ignore each other or come to blows. They joke about the match, smile awkwardly, shake hands. The pre-credit cards tell us that the two would later grow close, that Borg would be in the wedding party when McEnroe married Patty Smyth in 1997, that the two were “best enemies.” Nothing grand was at play here — which makes for a happy ending in real life, maybe, but not in the movies.

Tennis is a game of internal pain. There is no physical contact until a match has ended. There is no option to run out a clock or walk to a bench. A tennis player must struggle alone and actively push across the finish line. Tennis is the loneliest sport there is, and that does not make for great movies.

Tennis is often compared to boxing, which is a bit of a false equivalency; both pit athletes in solitary combat, but boxers get to touch their opponents, to retreat to their corners, to speak to their confidantes. The Boxing Movie is such a rich genre because boxing is external and easy to understand. Fighters work through physical pain; they aim to stand until the bell or to knock their opponent down. The rules of combat do not need to be explained, and neither does the training or fear that accompanies it.

Tennis, on the other hand, is a game of peculiar dimensions and regulations. The scoring jumps and skips in random increments. The turning point in a match or the deliverance of a critical blow is not always abundantly clear to the average viewer or even the trained eye. McEnroe’s 18–16 win in the match’s legendary fourth-set tiebreak was as shocking of an inflection as a tennis viewer will ever see; it was the contender pinned against the ropes, slipping a punch, and knocking down the champion in the fight’s penultimate round. But, this being a tennis movie, the drama was not tethered to the scene; before McEnroe’s great haymaker, the commentator had to explain the rules of a tiebreak.

As a tennis fan, Borg vs McEnroe is at once a pleasure and a disappointment. I’d wager that newcomers to the story felt the same way. The movie can’t quite decide why this rivalry was important, whether it was meaningful because of its human elements or its sporting ones.

Of course, sports themselves don’t have to decide whether they are only frivolous fun or a referendum on the human condition. It’s fine if they’re a little of both. And entirely fictional accounts get to turn up the drama, for better or worse, when they need to (looking at you, Friday Night Lights Season 2). But a true-to-life re-creation of this story is, in many ways, a project doomed from the start. Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry was a nonlinear tale squeezed into a straightaway.

Documentaries do this story well. HBO’s Fire & Ice, BBC’s Clash of the Titans, and the assorted Legends of Wimbledon films have all rehashed this match and rivalry from most every conceivable angle. The match footage on its own holds up well, too. I’ve scanned through the grainy telecast more times than I am willing to admit, and it still resonates as freely as any modern classic. But as fiction, it wants for more. Borg vs McEnroe is too honest to be a good tennis movie. Luckily, we have 7 Days in Hell.