Borg vs. McEnroe accounts the legendary tennis rivalry between the ice-cold Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the volcanic John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) when they faced off against each other at the Wimbledon Final in 1980. The Swedish gentleman, Borg, was on a quest to win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon trophy and the American rebel, McEnroe, was on a mission to end his streak by winning his first Wimbledon title. Before the film’s opening scene, we see a profound quote appear over black, “Tennis uses the language of life: advantage, service, fault, break, love. Every match is a life in miniature.” That quote was by one of the game’s all time greatest, Andre Agassi, who won the Wimbledon Championship in 1992.
In 1980, Borg is ranked #1 in the world and McEnroe is right behind him at #2. We see an overhead shot of a clay court as Borg relentlessly returns tennis balls being shot out of a machine. The director, Janus Metz (True Detective) imaginatively crafted this story together by the use of flashbacks into Borg’s childhood training from former quarter-finalist Lennard Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard) by emphasizing on Borg’s roots of unsportsmanlike conduct and temper tantrums as a young boy, while ingeniously blending it in with the present day. Contemporary Borg walks the streets of France, signing autographs with a calm, peaceful, serene demeanor. He’s cerebral and shows no emotion. The film focuses more on Borg’s upbringing, giving less screen time to John McEnroe, placing him as more of a supporting character in the film. Even though both of their names are in the title, it’s clearly Borg’s movie we’re watching. In order for Borg to set the record straight and declare himself the best for the fifth time, he has to go through McEnroe; the volley expert who was notoriously known for charging the net to intimidate his opponents, whereas Borg used pure skill and technique with all of his forehand and backhand strokes and ace services.
It’s three days until the Wimbledon tournament and we meet McEnroe; an untamed, rowdy, cursing, blaspheming character that loses control of his emotions on the court with outrageous antics that are extraordinary and surreal. A rapid succession of editing through flashbacks, tennis highlights and montage sequences lead us to London where Borg sits in his high-rise hotel suite being questioned about his plans for his upcoming wedding from managers while McEnroe sits by himself inside of his regular hotel room, requesting black magic markers from the front desk so he can draw bracket predictions on the wall. This sequence epitomizes the dichotomy between the two tennis champions. Except they have more in common than they realize.
Borg has lost confidence in his game and is trapped in his head with over analytical contemplations. There is a subdued intensity within him that can be seen through his eyes. He keeps his ego in check even though he’s like a tranquil ocean that can wipe you out with a wave. Through flashbacks, we learn Borg developed an unorthodox two-handed backhand swing that stemmed from his years of playing youth hockey. In addition, we learn that Young Borg gets suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct from a youth match. We realize that this ice-cold demeanor that the present-day Borg possesses is in fact, bottled-up emotions he’s been trained to withhold and express only on the court through his techniques. The Danish documentary filmmaker, Janus Metz, does an excellent job in communicating this irony by showing us that McEnroe and Borg have a lot more in common than they both realize. Amid the Wimbledon tournament in London, McEnroe sits at a bar in the hotel lobby watching a post-match interview of Borg on television. McEnroe, in awe, calls attention to Borg’s unusually composed demeanor. “You know how many times I’ve tried to be like him in interviews?” McEnroe says. “Be like Borg. Be Borg. He’s got no emotion. It’s not human.” McEnroe says, to his friend and fellow Wimbledon contestant, Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur).
Borg’s routine is meticulous. His rackets, his handbag, the seat he chooses to sit in when on court, are all accounted for with precision and superstition. Even when journalists want to do a story about his practice sessions outside of his childhood home, Borg has to leave and go watch an old family video tape of archive footage to remember which garage door he would hit the ball off of before they can take the photographs. Through flashbacks, we learn that Borg was a raging player in his youth in terms of his emotions. “Be like a pressure cooker and block everything else out.” Says his coach, Lennard Bergelin. “Rage, fear, panic, load it into every stroke.” Borg conquered his emotions and learned to develop a calm demeanor whereas McEnroe goes off and loses control without remorse for his actions. McEnroe’s instincts are stimulated and urge out of him. Nothing is held internally; it’s all expressed outward, no matter how profane or offensive.
After defeating his friend Peter Fleming in an earlier round match-up, McEnroe is given some proper advice that’s hard for him to take. “You’ll win Wimbledon. If not this year, then next. But you’ll never be remembered as one of the greats. Because nobody likes you.” McEnroe’s silence to this jab speaks wonders about the truth behind it. And we wonder whether he took it to heart. The film’s most powerful component is Shia LaBeouf’s phenomenal portrayal of John McEnroe. He bares his soul and expresses the genuine human condition on and off the court, the same way McEnroe did with his style of play. Shia LaBeouf embodies the spirit and energy of the controversial tennis star who would go on to win the Wimbledon final in 1981, against his same opponent, Bjorn Borg. But, in 1980, we witness how it all began.
Borg vs. McEnroe is a well-crafted film that jumps back and forth from past to present and impressively sells us on the idea that, this reenactment of a final match, which went the distance, into five sets and a record thirty-minute tiebreaker, is wholly authentic and utterly convincing. Janus Metz’s background in documentary filmmaking is the reason why we’re easily able to follow the story he tells. The flashback technique is used not just for one character’s backstory, but two. Film directors often attempt this type of storytelling and fall short, confusing the audience. But since the rhythm and the pacing of the editing is perfectly in tune, Metz dips in and out of flashbacks and leaves us feeling like we’re in the present. It’s almost as if he’s seamlessly telling us multiple stories on one timeline. This is not an easy thing to do, but Metz pulls it off and makes it look effortless.
In the aftermath of the film’s climax, McEnroe crosses paths with Borg at the airport. They engage each other and speak fondly of one another. McEnroe even goes in for the hug and they embrace. The director Janus Metz makes a brilliant creative choice here by showing us the point-of-view of Borg’s wife, who observes in the distance. We see Borg and McEnroe, from her perspective, unable to hear what they’re saying to each other. But, based on McEnroe’s slouching posture and head tilted down, in conjunction with Borg’s smile as he explains something mysterious, we can imagine that, perhaps, Borg was sharing their commonalities: that Borg is just as volatile as McEnroe, and that his placidness is just a mask that he wears to cover up the suppressed beast that rages inside of him.
Service. Advantage. Fault. Break. Love.