In the past year we’ve witnessed two of the most iconic tennis matches in sports history. First, it was feminist Billie Jean King versus sexist Bobby Riggs in 2017’s The Battle of the Sexes, and now it’s the stone-cold Bjorn Borg versus the firecracker John McEnroe in Borg Vs. McEnroe.
1980 Wimbledon was a tournament to remember. Both Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) were considered the best in their sport and favorites to win the grand title. Borg had already won the last four consecutive titles, but McEnroe was a young, rising star. Skill-wise, they were a match made in heaven, but in the public eye, they couldn’t be more different. Borg was placid, completely devoid of any emotion while playing. McEnroe preferred to take out his feelings on the umpires and was infamous for his temper tantrums. On the surface, one would think these two prodigies had nothing in common, but writer Ronnie Sandahl prefers to frame it differently.
Leading up to the big showdown, direct Janus Metz consistently shifts the scene on both Borg and McEnroe and studies them like they’re specimens. Using a mixture of flashbacks and real footage, Metz documents how these two men became the icons they are now. Here, the film starts to drift into the usual sports film tropes. Coming from broken beginnings, two boys feel like society is against them and wants them to fail. Borg was a hot-tempered child whose constant need to win made him the black sheep of his tennis club. McEnroe was a timid boy who was berated by his parents for getting a 96% on his homework.
There’s enough material for two biopics here, but most of the runtime goes to Borg. It makes sense, since Metz is Scandinavian, but it leaves McEnroe drastically underdeveloped. It’s a shame, because it’s easily some of LaBeouf’s best work. In real life, the world already knows LaBeouf as an enigmatic individual who has quite the temper, so he didn’t have to dig too deep to capture the “worst representative of American values since Al Capone.” However, LaBeouf is pushed to the sidelines in favor of Gudnason, whose portrayal of the anxious, uptight tennis player falls flat. His competitors remark that he’s incredibly superstitious, staying in the same room in the same hotel and stepping on his rackets before every match. But besides the exposition, we don’t really get much more than that.
Playing alongside Gudnason is Stellan Skarsgard as his coach, Lennart Bergelin. Contrary to McEnroe’s relationship with his father, Bergelin acts as Borg’s surrogate father. As a man with his own tennis failures, he teaches Borg to become completely emotionless and put his anger into his game. Skarsgard is usually in top form, but here he’s nothing more than the inspirational coach figure. He’s the Mickey to Borg’s Rocky but without any of the popular catch phrases.
Thankfully, the film is able to deliver on its grand finale—the famous tennis match. The abundance of close-up and medium shots can be jarring at first, but it helps with the tension-building. Even if you know the outcome of the real match, it’s impossible to not be at the edge of your seat. Any serve, bounce, and swing can end the game any time, but it keeps going and going.
Borg Vs. McEnroe could have been great if it didn’t try to be so ambitious. Its dedication to focus on both Borg and McEnroe leaves the film unfocused and unsatisfying, especially since most of the attention was given to Borg. Metz beats the audience over the head with how Borg and McEnroe are essentially the same person. They both hate tennis, but it’s all they have. It makes for a good melodrama but a forgettable sports film.