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Backhanded complement

Swedish-made biopic follows two giants of tennis on their way to an epic Wimbledon showdown

21 September, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason in Borg vs McEnroe

Directed by Januys Metz
Certificate: 15

THE 1980 Wimbledon tennis final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe was pretty much perfect in the eyes of the sporting world and those who follow the game.

Two giants who cleanly fitted a stereotype: one with a horrible, bad boy reputation from the New World, the other a quiet, studied European genius looking to scoop the gold trophy for the fifth consecutive time.

This showdown between two of the sport’s greatest players provides the backdrop for a well-crafted, Swedish-made tale of what happens to an individual in a super-pressurised environment.

Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is a dedicated pro, living in his tax haven in Monaco, avoiding fans, and by 1980, as a 26-year-old at the top of his game, finding the pressure at the top fairly unpleasant. McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) is the New Yorker upstart who argues with umpires and whose will to win is ugly.

They are destined to meet in a final on grass at the All England Club in an epic showdown, and this mild-mannered bio-pic of the pair uses the final as a tension point to build up to.

We see the usual back story of boys egged on by overbearing families, who recognise a marriage of natural talent and extreme hard work gets you to the top of your chosen tree. We are given a little bit of insight into why McEnroe earned his Superbrat moniker – a mixture of press hype, a genuine will to be the best, and a lack of social grace that made him unable to accept others may view the world in a different light to him. Borg is shown to be a stickler for detail, someone who takes professionalism to a whole new level.

What makes this film work is it isn’t just stories of two incredible people with amazing lives to share, it asks questions of the viewer. It considers the effect on the individual of solo sports where extreme pressure sits on just one person’s shoulders for others’ entertainment. It asks what price they pay, considers the motivation for wanting to be the best at something and the costs involved.

It paints a picture of it being a lonely and unenjoyable place to be.

This may not be a groundbreaking revelation – that to be at the top of a sport like tennis you need to make huge sacrifices and it can’t help but have a psychological effect on you – but it is still well told here.

One of the more irritating things about sport-related films is the usually atrocious way they set up the action. Think Escape To Victory, and Michael Caine pretending to be able to hit a barn door from 12 yards with a football. And then there is Break Point, the ludicrous 2014 tennis flick that had as much relation to Wimbledon in terms of action as my two-year-old throwing a tennis ball for my mum’s dog to chase.

So take a bow Janus Metz: the tennis games shown here look the part, using clever camera trickery no doubt.

Just don’t search for the result of the 1980 final before you go in, and if you’re that much into tennis to remember it, you’ll enjoy this consideration of one of the all-time great rivalries this uniquely lonely sport created.


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