Anyone for tennis? Borg/McEnroe review

One of tennis’ most memorable rivalries is the focus of Janus Metz’s Borg/McEnroe. Before I serve up into a review, check out the trailer below.

‘Iceborg versus the Superbrat!’ declared the American commentator excitedly, simultaneously summarising both the 1980 Wimbledon final and the entire one-hour 47-minute offering from Janus Metz.

Although the film is centred around the action at the All England Club where Bjorn Borg was trying to win an unprecedented fifth championship in a row, the focus is squarely on how two men – so different in style and conduct – were united by the unrelenting pressure at the pinnacle of competitive sport.

On court, Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is the world number one and king of Centre Court, stoic and unflustered, the picture of calm; John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) is the only man capable of stopping Borg’s march to the title – though he’s wildly unpopular due to his volatile, brash behaviour.

Off court, though, it’s a different story. Borg is neurotic, obsessive and almost as highly-strung as one of his wooden racquets. He’s a man under a mountain of pressure, determined to be remembered for what he has achieved rather than for ‘losing a fifth final’.

There’s hints at McEnroe’s party lifestyle – but also of a meticulous individual, driven in pursuit of greatness by an icy-cold determination, who writes out the tournament draw and its various permeations in black marker on a hotel room wall.

We see clips of their younger years – a tennis player whose career is nearly ended by explosive outbursts and an intelligent child whose efforts are not good enough for his parents. It may come as some surprise to discover which description fits which player.

The brief clips of court action are well done. It isn’t at all reminiscent of some of the disasters of the big screen (see Wimbledon, 2004) where every shot is an impossible volley or a slide at the net; a show-reel of ridiculous, outrageous points. This is accurate, curated rallies – put together with a purity that allows the rivalry between these two greats of the game to speak for itself.

The real masterpiece of this film, though, are the performances of LaBeouf and Gudnason.

LaBeouf managed to convey both volcanic and vulnerable sides of ‘Jonny Mac’, showing a man desperate to win but also desperate to leave a legacy; to be remembered for his tennis, not his tantrums. LaBeouf captured this with startling similarity to McEnroe himself.

However, unlike McEnroe, he may have to live in the shadow of his rival. It was impossible to take your eyes away from Gudnason, a doppelganger for Borg physically, who’s brooding inner turmoil had the sort of genuine quality that is essential in any ‘inspired by real events’ film. It’s worth noting his chemistry with Stellan Skarsgard (who plays coach Lennart Bergelin) as well, which accounted for most of the film’s more emotional moments.

If there is a fault, sometimes the film gets lost in its own moodiness. I left the cinema feeling confused: Did anyone actually enjoy playing tennis? The first smile comes around 90 minutes into the performance and even then, it disappeared as quick as a Borg backhand.

Perhaps that is just what it’s like to be at the top of sport. Maybe that’s the true brilliance of the film: That love just isn’t enough when it comes to winning.

Overall: 3.5/5

David Utteridge

Lover of all things film, fan-fiction and football (the British kind!), David is a writer with a unique voice and a wide-range of interests. Current editor-in-chief at Meta, having previously written for SportPulse, IndieICE and Reel World Movies.