The rivalry between tennis greats Björn Borg and John McEnroe was one for the ages and it was no doubt made for theatre. Here were two of the sport’s finest — both immensely talented and massively driven by the pursuit of greatness. But one, McEnroe, was fierce and volcanic; the other, Borg, was suave yet stoic. They were fire and ice, perfect dance partners for the sport of tennis.
That rivalry is the one Borg vs. McEnroe revisits over three decades later. Directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen, Borg vs. McEnroe is a biographical sports drama that chronicles what is arguably one of the sporting world’s fiercest — and most evenly matched — rivalries. The biopic revisits a compelling clash of titans, and it does so with aplomb (though it is not without its flaws).
Borg vs. McEnroe illuminates the essence of Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason), whose ice-like demeanour concealed an inner cauldron fuelled by a burning desire to win and a manic obsession for detail. The Guardian notes that Gudnason is remarkable in this biopic, and that is a accurate observation. The Swedish actor recreates in compelling detail everything that made his compatriot a tennis legend, and in doing so nearly steals all the thunder from Shia LaBeouf, his equally talented co-star.
LaBeouf doesn’t disappoint either as McEnroe. The biopic redefines McEnroe’s character, making a case that the American’s gifts were also his curse. McEnroe has been widely reviled for his hot-headed, tantrum-throwing ways, but Borg vs. McEnroe contextualises this volcanic temper. It wasn’t so much that McEnroe was forever full of vitriol; rather, his outbursts were manifestations of his own burning desire to win and his own manic obsession for detail. To this end, Pederson juxtaposes the two icons in a different light far apart from the fire vs. ice comparisons. The film’s message, it seems, is this: Despite their outward differences both players have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Those commonalities, in turn, are what made this Borg vs. McEnroe the rivalry that it was.
If anything, though, LaBeouf, despite his riveting performance, is left underused, and not by his own doing. The Independent’s review of the biopic rues this very same aspect, noting how Ronnie Sandahl’s screenplay hands the lion’s share of screen time to Gudnason. It is not a bad call per se, especially given Gudnason’s own spotlight-stealing greatness; but LaBeouf himself boasts acting pedigree, and he sure could have used more screen time.
Now, for the match point: Borg vs. McEnroe is an ace of a film, with a climax that artfully recreates the epic 1980 Wimbledon finals between the two icons. This biopic is an enthralling look-back at a tête-à-tête that remains the standard bearer for a sport that has had plenty of rivalries. The most recent of these rivalries, in the estimation of tennis great Pete Sampras, is the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, whom Sampras says “carried the torch for a couple of years” — in much the same fashion that Borg and McEnroe did from 1978 to 1981. Ranked 1 and 3 in Coral’s list of highest earning tennis players, Federer and Nadal have faced off 38 times (16 times more than Borg-McEnroe), with 24 of those showdowns for a championship.
While the Telegraph’s Charlie Eccleshare hails Federer-Nadal as one of the sport’s greatest rivalries, making a strong case that the two “have taken tennis to new heights,” the film thinks otherwise. Borg vs. McEnroe illustrates how the rivalry between Borg and McEnroe was one of a kind, and sheds light on what made it the true greatest rivalry in tennis.
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Guest Post from Mary Williams