Tennis has never fared particularly well on the big screen (Wimbledon, anybody? Thought not). But this film, which focuses on the tumultuous 1980 tussle between ‘iceman’ Bjorn Borg and ‘superbrat’ John McEnroe, at least manages to capture the enduring appeal of the sport – that weird synthesis of action and psychological torture that has so many of us in its thrall. Sverrir Gudnasson offers an uncanny performance as Borg, capturing the man’s look and moves with absolute precision, while Shia LeBeouf isn’t a million miles away with his impersonation of McEnroe. Though the newspapers of the time loved to play up the essential differences between the two players, what’s interesting here are the similarities between them.
We first meet Borg as an obsessive youngster, given to losing his temper at every turn and throwing tantrums every bit as bad as those that would be displayed by his opponent, years later. But it is the intervention of tennis coach (and former Wimbledon finalist) Lennart Bergolin (Stellan Skarsgard), that convinces Borg to become the man the world would fall for – a silent, brooding introvert who never displays his emotions. McEnroe’s childhood proves to be equally interesting. He was some kind of mathematics prodigy. Who knew?
Naturally, the main part of the film concentrates on that famous game, where Borg is going for his fifth title and McEnroe is the upstart the public loves to hate, threatening to overturn a champion who has all the charisma of a pop idol. It’s to director Janus Metz’s credit that he manages to generate some real levels of tension here, even if we already know the outcome of the match. (Mind you, I’ve misremembered it. I thought we were watching the fateful game of the following year, the one that prompted Borg to retire from the sport at the tender age of twenty six – so the end actually comes as a complete surprise to me.)
I’ve seen a lot of poor reviews for this but as a tennis lover (and as somebody who watched enthralled as the original match played out) I rather enjoy it. Then again, if tennis really isn’t your thing, this clearly isn’t for you.