Borg vs. McEnroe: A tightly strung rivalry – even on film

International Blog – Michael Dickens


Michael Dickens

For 1 hour and 37 minutes on a recent Sunday morning, I felt like I had gone back in time to the summer of 1980 and Sweden’s Björn Borg was the top tennis player in the world, in pursuit of a record-breaking fifth Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles championship.

From 1974 to 1981, Borg dominated tennis, both on and off the court – not unlike Roger Federer has done a generation later. Borg became the first male player in the Open Era (since 1968) to win 11 Grand Slam singles titles. He possessed a powerful forehand, perfected the two-fisted backhand, and was rigorously disciplined to a fault. On the other side of the net from the 24-year-old Borg was none other than John McEnroe, three years Borg’s junior: young, American, talented, abrasive. When you think of Borg vs. McEnroe, you think of tennis, former rivals, best enemies. They were the antithesis of each other.

During a screening at the Cinema Club in Washington, D.C., on March 25, I watched Borg vs. McEnroe, which premiered in limited release in the United States last month. (It played last fall on the film festival circuit in Europe.) It is directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz with the screenplay provided by Swedish writer and director Ronnie Sandahl. Sverrir Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg while Shia LaBeouf portrays McEnroe.

Borg vs. McEnroe focuses on Borg’s rise to prominence, starting from his youth through the 1980 Wimbledon Championships. We learn how Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin (played brilliantly by Stellan Skarsgård), helps him to channel his competitive – obsessive – behavior off the court so that he can focus on his impulsive game on the court. Meanwhile, we also learn of McEnroe’s complete obsession with Borg prior to their big Centre Court championship match.
“Essentially, the movie implies that, despite appearances to the contrary, Borg and McEnroe were inwardly very similar – and different mainly in their behavior. What the drama suggests is that the pressure to maintain appearances, to keep his furies under control and channeled, exacted a very high emotional price on Borg,” writes critic Richard Brody in The New Yorker. 

“I’m just like everybody else … I’m not a machine,” says Borg, during a testy exchange with a reporter on the eve of his showdown with McEnroe.

Overall, I found Borg vs. McEnroe an enjoyable film to watch. The memorable, fourth set 34-point tie-break, during which McEnroe saved five match points, takes up nearly the final third of the film. It is at times very riveting and played to its full dramatic effect. The points are fast and so are the edits. While the film focuses on the “Fire and Ice” rivalry between these two future Hall of Fame players, I feel I learned a lot more about the complexity of Borg’s character – think tightly strung perfectionist – than I did of McEnroe. However, seeing McEnroe’s bad on-court behavior recreated – yelling at both the chair umpire and at pigeons, too – brought back memories for which he’s forever remembered. “You cannot be serious!”

Borg vs. McEnroe is presented in both English and Swedish with subtitles. I highly recommend this film.