In 1980 Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is headed for Wimbledon to attempt to win a record fifth title at the famed tournament. Standing in his way is the brash American upstart John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), determined to beat the Swede and take home his first Wimbledon win. The two men are a study in contrasts – Borg is famously emotionless on court, a tennis-playing machine, while McEnroe is a firebrand, known for his temper tantrums and unsportsmanlike behaviour. However, as the tournament progresses and the pressure to win through mounts, we learn that the two may have more in common than their surface demeanours indicate.
Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen (Armadillo) approaches this account of Borg and McEnroe’s famous rivalry as a work of psychological portraiture, delving into the mindset and sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. While the focus is on Wimbledon ’80, frequently flashbacks to both the players’ formative years give us insight into what makes them tick: both come from poorer backgrounds and see tennis as a way to elevate themselves and their families, and both are driven by rage and perfectionism (we spend a lot of time with the young Borg seeing how his coach, played by the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard, channels the boy’s rage into productive forward momentum).
It’s an impressively sympathetic film. We spend more time with Borg than McEnroe and you might expect the film to err towards hagiography, but Pedersen goes out of his way to present the driven, often brusque Borg as a man with his own share of foibles. Similarly, McEnroe’s frequently boorish behaviour may be on full display, but the man’s loneliness and self-flagellating drive to be the best makes him a well-rounded screen presence rather than just an antagonist to test our Swedish hero.
When the two finally clash on court, it’s something to behold. The outcome isn’t in doubt for anyone familiar with the sport, but Pedersen manages to ratchet up the tension nonetheless by making each volley an extension of character -we know what the personal stakes are for these guys, so we’re thoroughly invested by the time they face each other over the net.
Borg vs McEnroe avoids most of the cliches of the standard sports movie – this isn’t about an underdog rising up, but two world class athletes testing their mettle against one another and finding a kind of camaraderie when they realise that the only person who can really understand what they’re going through is their opposite number. What we’re left with is a film that’s more interested in what’s going on in the heads of the protagonists rather than on the court between them, and is all the more satisfying for that.