Director: Janus Metz Pedersen
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny
In one of the final shots of Borg McEnroe, a man walks away with his wife, after exchanging pleasantries with a boy who walks away with his father. Just the previous day, on London’s hallowed grass courts, it was difficult to tell the man from the boy. Behind the curtains, away from the glare of the sport, the contrast is obvious – and iconic. The age difference is three years – but this amounts to no less than an entire generation in tennis. They are fierce rivals on court, and the papers would like to believe they dislike each other off the court too. Predecessors to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal? Successors to Niki Lauda and James Hunt?
After all, their personalities differ immensely. Björn Borg, the “adult” who looks, feels and plays older than this age of 24 suggests, is quiet, subtle, clinical and distant. Like a European art house film, the Swede champion even cuts to a black slate for the end credits without warning (he would retire, prematurely, at 26). John McEnroe, the American “kid” primed to take over the throne, is an absolute brat. He lets it all out on court, and is loud, foul-mouthed, angry and intense. But he is not arrogant. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, he leaves nothing to imagination, and holds nothing back while celebrating his own talent and victimhood – even if the world doesn’t like him very much.
One is afraid of losing, and one will lose as much as possible to become a winner. They are different, so very different. And perhaps the biggest triumph of this film’s familiar template is the fact that, by the end, even these two don’t quite realize that they are actually the same – maybe just at different stages of greatness.
I’m not a big fan of wanting to see my heroes humanized on pages or screen. I’d rather they remain celestial beings in my mind instead of flawed individuals who – heavens forbid – mortals like me can relate to. I’d stay away from a film called “Federer Nadal” about that 2008 Wimbledon Final. Similarly, I’d imagine that the Borg-McEnroe generation might find it fascinating, yes, but also very strange to see the two in a revelatory behind-the-scenes account of Wimbledon 1980 – a tournament that culminated in what many consider to be the single greatest tennis match of all time (until 2008, of course). Gods played that final against each other; a movie like this simply strips away the aura, the sheen, behind that contest. It deconstructs the gladiators behind closed doors, and then rebuilds the match as one played between two existential commoners. Every sports film says this: they’re just like us, except better and stronger.
Borg McEnroe excels because of the story it chooses to tell. The imbalance of perspectives, weirdly, works for the narrative. It isn’t quite about both players, even though some clumsy childhood portions would like to have us believe that the focus is on both careers – and that everything they have ever done has led to this moment
That’s what cinema does. In pursuit of storytelling, at times, it explores the kind of holy turf that should have remained untouched. As a result, some films put themselves in a situation where, whatever they do, it will never be enough. There has to be more. There is always more. There has to be more to the way McEnroe doggedly saves seven Championship points; there has to be more to the way Borg kept hitting back. The “more” makes them movie characters with movie conflicts.
The reason I am vastly entertained by Borg McEnroe, though, is because I was born six years after the events of this film. For me, it remains just a story, and not something I lived through in order to formulate my own fantasies. I’m still in a position to learn things from it I never knew. I’m still in a position to view them as men who play tennis, and not future hall of famers. I wouldn’t be able to say the same about a more recent film – the MS Dhoni biopic, the Sachin Tendulkar documentary, the Mary Kom biopic – because of the current-ness of my expectations.
Interestingly, Borg McEnroe excels because of the story it chooses to tell. The imbalance of perspectives, weirdly, works for the narrative. It isn’t quite about both players, even though some clumsy childhood portions would like to have us believe that the focus is on both careers – and that everything they have ever done has led to this moment. The title, however, should have been “Borg: The McEnroe Edition”. Much of this, I suppose, is down to the maker Janus Metz Pedersen being European (Danish, specifically). Hailing from Sweden’s friendly neighbouring nation, he is understandably more invested in the soul of Borg (an uncanny Sverrir Gudnason) – his internal turmoil, the pressure of being the best, his marriage, his wealth and fame, and his testy relationship with longtime coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård). The happiest, or calmest, we actually see him is in a scene where a French waiter fails to recognize him in Monte Carlo. There is no such depth to McEnroe.
One way to look at it is as a Borg biopic through the lens of his most definitive victory, and another way (which, in cinematic terms, is legitimate) is as a one-sided account of the sport’s most seminal rivalry. It’s no surprise that McEnroe recently complained about being portrayed as a one-dimensional jerk. But the title is misleading; I choose the former gaze, because Borg’s isn’t an “underdog” tale at all. It isn’t staple material. Here is a champion who has already won five French Open titles and four Wimbledon titles, and is now struggling to deal with the enormous pressure of winning his fifth. He has everything, and yet we empathize with an invincible athlete who is quietly anxious about finally finding his equal.
There are more than a couple of scenes in which, oblivious to the background din, Borg watches a younger McEnroe steam through his draw on a television set. His notorious poker-faced expressions can barely hide a little fear, and admiration, for the rebellious kid insulting chair umpires and crowds. Because McEnroe reminds Borg of the emotional player he once was, and might have wanted to be. I suspect Andy Murray must look at his volatile Aussie friend Nick Kyrgios the same way today. Borg is envious of this boy, and soon we notice that he is edgier and angrier than an unusually relaxed McEnroe (a terrific Shia LaBeouf is born to play this role, but deserves an independent biopic) off the court.
To draw a parallel, imagine a film about Federer until the 2007 Wimbledon Final – where he barely defeated young Nadal in five sets. Like McEnroe, Nadal broke down afterwards. And like Borg, Federer might have realized that it was only a matter of time before he is vanquished. History repeated itself with them; only, that film is still going on as we speak. This film ends before Borg is dethroned. The similarities are startling, because Federer too was once a hotheaded teenager, and went on to lose to a relentless Nadal next year in an all-time classic. While Federer chose to soldier on through a tough 2008 and early 2009, lose more, cry some and fight back over his long career, Borg retired after losing the 1981 Wimbledon Final to McEnroe, perhaps realizing that he isn’t built to be second-best. He isn’t built to tolerate the fall. He had internalized his feelings too much to allow him the luxury of losing anymore.
The subject matter – the actual ebbs and flows of the final – is so engrossing in itself that even a flawed film, and a filmmaker who might have lost objectivity, isn’t a problem. The match is a reflection of life, and there was no need for it to be packaged as a jazzily edited, fancy-angled orgy of momentum
The film hints at all the doubts that will soon plague Borg, and it is really a prelude to Borg losing rather than a celebration of his biggest win. It serves as a mild exploration of probably the most famous aborted career in sports history. The film effectively communicates this future without depicting it – which is why a half-baked McEnroe feels more like a shadow lurking in locker rooms and pubs than a fellow protagonist. The natural sequel would be “McEnroe: Borg Edition”. Perhaps it’s better we don’t see enough of McEnroe here, except on court in the final, when suddenly the focus is on McEnroe and his desperate fight rather than Borg’s sinking confidence and silent brawling.
Ironically, the subject matter – the actual ebbs and flows of the final – is so engrossing in itself that even a flawed film, and a filmmaker who might have lost objectivity, isn’t a problem. The match is a reflection of life, and there was no need for it to be packaged as a jazzily edited, fancy-angled orgy of momentum. Close-ups of sweaty faces cut to top angles cut to side profiles mid-rally and disorienting frontal shots, as if to disguise the actors’ inabilities to look professional. On the few occasions we do see them play a full serve-and-volley point or a passing shot down the line, the action is convincing and old-fashioned, suiting the gentle pace and guile of the wooden-racket era. Much of the suspense could have been conveyed through sounds, the oohs and aahs of enthralled viewers and the excitable TV commentary instead of the rapid imagery.
Ron Howard’s superb F1 drama, Rush, about an identical rivalry between extravagant Hunt and joyless Lauda, had to jazz up the on-track racing action, because the sport is visually repetitive and curiously distant. Tennis doesn’t need perspectives, even if its players do. It is such a furiously individual and lonely sport that the outcomes are unpredictable and exciting enough, without depending on the permutations and combinations of time constraints and camera-encrusted nets. Any shot can lead to any winner or unforced error, and filmmakers rarely recognize the inherent arbitrariness of the sport. It doesn’t need visual crutches, just as McEnroe’s rage needs no justifications.
The only “tennis” movie I had seen prior to this is one called Wimbledon (2004). Not surprisingly, it was a flimsy rom-com parading as an underdog male-centric sports drama. It starred Paul Bettany as an ageing British player, and Kirsten Dunst as an upcoming American player (playing a version of young Maria Sharapova – complete with the psycho dad), and was made way before Murray ended Great Britain’s agonizing wait for a Wimbledon Men’s Singles’ title. Therefore, in true English style, the tennis itself was romantic and comical; never mind a blossoming love affair during the world’s most prestigious tournament. In fact, Bettany allegedly “defeats” young guns like Federer and Roddick on his way to Goran-Ivanisevic-esque immortality. Self-depreciatory Britain defeats flashy America in the final. And he wins at love.
Borg McEnroe has no time for romance, or even romanticizing the sport. But again, flashy America must lose the final. Only this time, not as a villain. Because the elegant hero just wants to pass the baton – and, not unlike a tired Dark Knight, move on and ride into a very European sunset.
Note: Indian viewers might find it increasingly difficult to grasp the spirit of a “sanskaari” McEnroe because of the many muted cuss words. Often, it seems as if he were playing tennis in a silent film. Such a pity, given that the mercurial American’s true weapon and trademark remained his colourful on-court behavior.