Janus Metz Pedersen’s Borg McEnroe aims to be both a tennis movie and a psychological study of two players at the midway point between descent and ascent. In the metaphorical centre are Swedish champion Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), who is aiming to make history with his fifth straight Wimbledon win, and American prodigy John McEnroe (Shia Labeouf), whose dazzling talent has made him the player most likely to ruin Borg’s dream.
The movie is based on one of the most storied contests in tennis history: the men’s single final that was played at Wimbledon on July 5, 1980. The contrasting personalities of the contenders – Borg famously ice-cool and McEnroe a profanity-sputtering hothead – provides for an easy contrast in the early sections, but the film hits its stride in the later portions, which suggest that the players enter Centre Court in 1980 after having swapped their personalities. Borg has more aggression in his game, while McEnroe reels in his famed boorishness to play some of the most scintillating tennis the world has seen.
Flashbacks also indicate that Borg is like McEnroe in his formative years, partial to flinging his racket about and stomping off the court when matches do not go in his favour. Trained and tamed by his coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), Borg channels his anger towards a clinical brilliance that mesmerises tennis fans and results in sometimes unwanted attention.
In a charming scene, Borg slips into a cafe in Monaco, where he owns an apartment, and offers to pay for his coffee later since he has forgotten his wallet. The coffee shop manager doesn’t recognise Borg, and refuses to oblige. The exchange between the two anticipates Borg’s yearning for normalcy as well as the early retirement that will be forced on him by a brash American a continent away.
The Wimbledon match is more evenly balanced than the plot, which is tipped heavily in Borg’s favour. Greater attention is paid to his early years, his struggles with his temper and the expectations placed on him, and his anxiety over McEnroe’s mercurial rise. Some stylistic decisions result in unnecessary drama aimed at keying up the anticipated clash by several notches. The anachronistic use of jump cuts and rapid-fire editing in several sequences is a misfire, given the period setting. The melodramatic treatment of Borg’s nervousness, including weeping in the shower, is the equivalent of watching an interminable tie-breaker.
The movie works better when it slows down to examine its characters and the actors who beautifully play them. Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LeBeouf are in top form, both on and off the court, and the match itself is a satisfyingly tense nail-biter despite the ridiculous flashbacks during key match points.
There have been better films about historic sporting contests, including Ron Howard’s Rush, which documented the rivalry between Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt in 1976. Borg/McEnroe wins the game and set for its two assured central performances, but it works too hard to hardsell the significance of the Wimbledon match. There’s just about enough tennis and not enough psychology in the 107-minute running time, the numerous pensive close-ups notwithstanding.