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Borg vs. McEnroe, about the 1980 Wimbledon match, fails to serve up the drama

Shia LaBeouf is dynamic as John McEnroe, but the movie focuses on his inscrutable opponent, to its detriment.

Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason play John McEnroe and Björn Borg in Borg vs. McEnroe.
Julie Vrabelova/Neon
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Near the end of Borg vs. McEnroe, tennis stars Björn Borg and John McEnroe (played by Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf, respectively) sit on a bench, the very picture of anxiety. Above them on the wall is emblazoned a line from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If—”:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

It is not a particularly subtle moment in an otherwise pretty subtle sports film, about the pair’s historic meeting at Wimbledon in 1980. The inscrutable Swede Borg was up for a historic fifth victory; McEnroe was the hot-tempered American upstart who could wreck his chances.

Borg vs. McEnroe chronicles the lead-up to the match, both the days just before it and flashbacks to each player’s youth. It’s also a largely Swedish production, directed by the Danish director Janus Metz, and so, perhaps inevitably, it feels unlike most sports films made under American auspices — mostly quiet, almost meditative.

That’s a strength for Borg vs. McEnroe, but it’s also a liability. Tennis films operate a lot like boxing films, in that they focus on two individuals gearing up for a match rather than a team coming together in some kind of inspirational fashion to win. They’re more about mental mastery than teamwork and camaraderie, shot in a quiet meditative fashion.

All that can be good. But it also makes for a less compelling story. Borg vs. McEnroe is an interesting expression of Kipling’s sentiments, but ultimately it’s hamstrung by its choice to focus largely on one side of the match — the less interesting one, in movie terms, anyhow.

Borg vs. McEnroe follows two of the world’s best tennis players as they journey toward manhood

Sports movies come in a couple of main varieties. There’s the inspirational kind (which is often, though not always, about team sports like football). And then there’s the kind that uses the central match or game as a way to explore a broader theme, often about society or human nature.

The 1980 Wimbledon match was a historic one for both Björn Borg, who stood to make history with his win, and talented newcomer John McEnroe.
Julie Vrabelova/Neon

Borg vs. McEnroe belongs to the latter camp, as did another recent tennis movie, Battle of the Sexes, which played alongside this film at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. But where Battle of the Sexes aimed to tell a larger story about gender and misogyny, Borg vs. McEnroe’s focus is on what makes for a great tennis player and, in particular, how a man’s passion and temper can make or break him.

The whole film plays out like a long parable based on Kipling’s poem. In “If—,” the poet addresses his son, explaining that what it really takes to be a man is to “keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” to be hated but “don’t give way to hating,” to “dream — and not make dreams your master,” to “force your heart and nerve and sinew / to serve your turn long after they are gone.” Risking everything to win, and losing but turning right around and starting again without complaining — this is what makes for a man.

And as Kipling puts it, doing all this means that “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Borg and his fiancée Mariana in Borg vs. McEnroe.
Julie Vrabelova/Neon

Borg vs. McEnroe chronicles the struggles that both of its main characters faced as they learned the truths of Kipling’s poem the hard way. As the film tells the story, the 1980 Wimbledon match was the culmination of a long road for both the cool-headed Borg and McEnroe, known for his hot temper and combative attitude toward the press, the umpires, and the crowd.

McEnroe’s outbursts happened in public, and won’t surprise anyone with even the slightest knowledge of his history. But through a series of flashbacks, the movie portrays Borg — known in public to be so calm under pressure that he was nicknamed “Ice-Man” or “Ice-Borg” — as being just as hot-tempered as McEnroe. His coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) trains him to keep his rage bottled up inside and then funnel it into his game.

But it still slips out in private, in ways that affect Borg’s relationship with both Bergelin and his girlfriend Mariana (Tuva Novotny), and may threaten his game, especially as the pressure of winning a fifth Wimbledon mounts. Meanwhile, McEnroe battles his own demons and his reputation, alienating friends and wondering if he will ever be remembered as one of the greats if everyone hates him.

Borg vs. McEnroe’s focus on Borg is the source of its troubles

The bulk of the movie follows Borg, which is entirely understandable; Borg vs. McEnroe is a Swedish production, and its Swedish character, widely considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, is of course the one it focuses on.

But it’s also a flaw, for two reasons. First, while Gudnason turns in a haunting performance as Borg, “Ice-Borg” is simply not that interesting to watch off the court for long stretches of the movie. Even when he gives in to his temper, the performance is so understated that it feels anticlimactic. Borg was known for being virtually expressionless. That might make for good tennis, but that doesn’t make for very good cinema.

Shia LaBeouf plays John McEnroe in Borg vs. McEnroe.
Julie Vrabelova/Neon

And unfortunately, he’s up against not just an explosive and unpredictable firecracker of a character in McEnroe, but also one of the most consistently interesting performers working today in LaBeouf. Even when he’s in a mediocre movie (and he often is), LaBeouf is a magnetic onscreen presence. There’s a naturalism and complexity to his McEnroe that keeps him from being turned into a caricature. It’s hard not to want more of him.

That’s exactly what the movie doesn’t serve up. Ably shot by Niels Thastum, the movie looks less frenetic than many others in its genre. But the story (from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl) drags without much narrative tension, and by the end you just want the match to happen so there’s some movement onscreen. The two players may have been changed (as the title cards say) by their journey to Wimbledon, and to real manhood, but unfortunately, the movie they’re in is curiously inert.

Borg vs. McEnroe opens in theaters on April 12.