The 1980 Wimbledon final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe remains one of the most celebrated events in the history of tennis, a grueling stalemate capped with a tie-breaker round lasting nearly a half hour. The match forms the primary subject of director Janus Metz Pedersen’s Borg vs. McEnroe, which traces the journeys that led Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), a superstar of the sport by 1980, and McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), then a rising star and already quite a hothead, to their most renowned meeting. Though the two had played each other seven previous times in official matches, the film treats their Wimbledon showdown almost as their first encounter.
Right out of the gate, the audience is treated to a précis of Borg’s life, from a young child practicing his serves against a wall in a modest Stockholm neighborhood to an international superstar living in a luxurious penthouse in Monaco. But Borg shuns his fame, focusing his energies on his training with a monkish self-denial. His calm is contrasted with the whirlwind that is McEnroe, who bursts onto the screen in a montage of outbursts on the court. Where Borg ducks out of the streets to avoid even his fans spotting him, McEnroe is introduced watching himself on television, very much caught up in the media circus that will follow him throughout his entire career.
It’s a simple enough illustration of the gulf in personality between the two men, but Borg vs. McEnroe takes pains to blur the lines of this divide. Flashbacks to Borg’s youth reveal a tempestuous streak that nearly puts McEnroe’s adult tantrums to shame. Wielding his racket like a warhammer, the tween Borg is undisciplined and belligerent, saved from banishment from clubs only by the intervention of Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård), the coach who sees the potential of the boy’s powerful strokes and conditions him to channel all of his rage into his game. In that context, Borg’s fussiness over his routines and his smoldering inertness take on new meaning as conscious rather than random or innate behaviors. Similarly, McEnroe’s antics mask his own deep commitment to tennis, blowing up at perceived bad calls or obnoxious audiences for distracting him from his intense focus.
Thus, Borg and McEnroe are shown to be more similar to each other than they likely seemed to tennis fans almost 40 years ago, an insight arrived at within the first 35 minutes of the film. And like a term paper that reaches its conclusion too soon, Borg vs. McEnroe pads out its length with extraneous details. Yet more flashbacks rehash the two-dimensional psychological profiles of the two men constantly losing it while under pressure. The film also briefly toys with a deeper glimpse into Bergelin’s relationship with Borg and its seeds of envy and awe, but that thread too frequently falls back on the simplistic sight of the coach being pointedly left at the margins of all the business talk surrounding Borg and the marketing of his profitable image.
Most frustrating of all is how Pedersen blunders his depiction of the Wimbledon final. Part of the allure of tennis is that it offers one of the greatest platforms to observe the intensity of athletic body language outside of combat sports. The thrill of the sport lies in watching how players are so conditioned that they start moving not in reaction to an opponent’s return but in anticipation of it, able to change direction in a split second the moment he or she sees how the ball rebounds off a racket. From afar, you can sense how a player carries a lifetime of conditioning, and without ever getting a good look at his or her face. The film, however, resorts to jittery close-ups of Borg and McEnroe looking generically determined throughout their matches. There’s no sense of progression beyond the scoreboard that occasionally flashes on screen. Early on, a commentator delineates the difference in style between Borg’s brute force and McEnroe’s mongoose-like darting and weaving. But none of that is visible in the actors’ recreation of the athletes’ interactions, and the viewer is left only with the vague outline of a match.
Even the depiction of how both men waver during the Wimbledon final—of Borg losing his cool while McEnroe avoids succumbing to petulance—fails to tie into the larger portrait of their rivalry. There’s no indication that McEnroe draws out Borg’s suppressed passions any more than the Swede inspires calm in the American. The attempt to highlight the dramatic tension between two opposing personalities only reveals the lack of personal animus to bind this narrative, inadvertently betraying that so many stories of sport rivalries are the concoctions of writers looking for a pitch angle. This exposes a hollow core at the heart of Borg vs. McEnroe, which deflates its legendary subject matter with superficial psychological profiles that ignore how the best sports stories are the ones invented by the spectators, not the participants.