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Hot on the heels of Battle of the Sexes, about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, comes a film about, arguably, the greatest, tensest tennis match of all time, the titanic, epic, gruelling – for players and spectators – Wimbledon Men’s Final of 1980 between four-time Wimbledon champ Björn Borg and first time finalist John McEnroe. Surprisingly sombre in tone, Janus Metz’s debut scripted feature film ambitiously delves into the psychology of these two men, and that of elite sportspeople in general, coming up with a surprising thesis, which I suppose demands a spoiler alert.
The fascinating – and myth-busting – argument of the film, convincingly put forward, is that these two tennis Goliaths, so noted for the perceived enormous chasm of their differences, were actually vastly more similar than anyone perceived. We all know McEnroe as the hothead and Borg as “ice-cool”, but the film posits that Borg was every bit as temperamental, brash, rude, disrespectful and argumentative as his flamboyant American rival, and that this behaviour was essentially trained out of him by his career-long mentor and coach Lennart Bergelin (played with typical specificity by Stellan Skarsgård).
Metz directed the Borg v McEnroe episode of a TV documentary series called Clash of the Titans in 1996, so he’s obviously been stewing on this material for awhile. His casting of Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf as Borg and McEnroe is perfection (in LaBoeuf’s case, for meta as well as dramatic reasons) and the final match, given plenty of screen time, is masterfully staged (I was tense as hell and I knew the result). But the bulk of the film is surprisingly dry and bitter, with Borg’s crisis of confidence and McEnroe’s arrogance resulting in two unlikeable leads. Now that I’ve met this “real” Borg, I’m sad to have lost my idealised version, who was a hero. These guys aren’t heroes, just self-absorbed people with strange wiring, who must win things to be happy.