Gripping, insightful and quietly powerful, “Borg vs McEnroe” brings us a thoughtful examination of sporting drive and athletic rivalry at a watershed moment for international tennis.
In the run-up to the 1980 Wimbledon Championship, Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) contemplates the possibility that he could become the first person ever to win five consecutive Wimbledon titles but his path to glory may be blocked by the brash, aggressive up and coming enfant terrible of tennis, John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf).
Gudnason does a fantastic job of capturing the cool charisma and sex appeal of Borg at the height of his fame and while it may be an easy target to say LaBeouf could just put on retro tennis whites and be himself to essay a young John McEnroe, assisted by a smart script, he delivers a much more complex and nuanced performance, adding layers beneath the temper tantrums and doubting of umpires’ seriousness.
In fact, although the film primarily focuses on Borg, there’s a neat parallel between the two athletes revealing the same incendiary drive and will to win that would propel them both to the top of their sport. While Borg was – and is in the film – the more easily likeable of the pair, the film gives us a deeper understanding and sympathy for McEnroe, showing him in a light I had never considered.
“Borg vs McEnroe” is a beautifully balanced piece of docudrama, weaving a rich tapestry of their lives and, while counterpointing their stark differences, revealing the fundamental similarities which would later see them become firm friends.
The 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Singles final is recreated in all its titanic glory, losing none of its breathtaking drama as McEnroe discovers that resistance is far from futile, pushing Borg to a punishing fifth set. There’s a vindication for Borg’s cool, calm and collected focus in his eventual triumph and a career-defining redemption for McEnroe as he manages to keep his temper in check and let his tennis speak for him, earning the forgiveness and admiration of the Wimbledon crowd and the wider world.