Movie review: ‘Borg vs. McEnroe’ is an ace of a tennis movie

The most recent film based on a true account about the world of tennis was last fall’s “Battle of the Sexes,” one of the biggest flops of the year. The acting was good, the directing was competent, but maybe the story — about the supposed rivalry between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs — still left a bad taste in the mouths of anyone recalling the actual unfolding of events. The match, focusing on man against woman and young against old, was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

“Borg vs. McEnroe” is a different story, on many levels. The match between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which took place seven years after the King-Riggs debacle, would result in one of them winning the 1980 Wimbledon Championship, the most prestigious tennis title in the world.

Oddly, like its predecessor, there isn’t a whole lot of tennis in it, at least not until the last act. This is a character study, featuring two outstanding performances from Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason in his English-language debut as Bjorn Borg, and Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe. For those not familiar with the two athletes, Borg, at the time of the big match, was the soft-spoken player, and McEnroe was the loudmouthed brat. Or, as the event was being promoted, it was a contest between the gentleman and the rebel.

This is a movie with no sex, no violence, no visual effects, no cursing ... um, check that ... this has more cursing than your standard Martin Scorsese movie, all of it coming from the mouth of McEnroe, who developed such a reputation for being the bad boy of tennis, he would be booed, even by admiring fans and, at least in the film version, on the day of the Wimbledon finals, the engineers in the TV broadcast booth were ordered to turn down the volume of his microphone, lest some unacceptable part of his expected diatribe make it into viewers’ homes.

The film opens and closes with their lengthy and storied match on the grass at Wimbledon, where Borg, ranked No. 1 in the world, and going for his fifth Wimbledon title, would take on the No. 2-ranked McEnroe, who was playing his first Wimbledon. It wasn’t just a battle between evenly matched talents, it was also all about those two different temperaments and the bonus of it being righty vs. lefty.

The film generously provides a series of flashbacks that examine part of what got Borg and McEnroe to London that day. Borg, at about 15, is presented as a tough but irascible player who yells and throws objects and was not unfamiliar with being penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. McEnroe as a lad played very hard but had a great deal of non-sports-related pressure on him courtesy of his parents. In a scene where his mom questions him about school, she says, “What happened with your geography test?” He replies, “I got a 96.” She counters, “What about the other four?”

Borg eventually saw the light via his dedicated coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård). But McEnroe, at least in this telling, didn’t have that sort of guiding hand to get him to focus his energies on the game. Yet in the days approaching the big match, Borg is seen as worried about his legacy, and McEnroe is presented, on the outside, as taking everything loose and easy.

By the time the film has established that this is the story of two major talents who also happen to be tortured souls, the finals match is on, and is presented in a series of close-ups and wide-angle action shots. It’s a beautifully paced section of the film, tense and thrilling, and turns into a phenomenal match. I couldn’t recall who won, and I didn’t Google it (neither should you), so I was completely caught up in its excitement. Don’t worry, viewers are not left hanging; there is a winner of the match, and this is a winner of a movie.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Borg vs. McEnroe”

Written by Ronnie Sandahl; directed by Janus Metz

With Shia LaBeouf, Sverrir Gudnason, Stellan Skarsgård

Rated R

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