I watch sports movies when an interesting one comes along, and last week, via Netflix, I saw Borg Vs. McEnroe, a 2017 release. It’s not a great movie but it’s a good one, about the two tennis players who dominated their sport in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Okay, you’re probably thinking, the contrast between the stolid Swede Borg and the mercurial American McEnroe would be the stuff of good drama. As the movie makes clear, though, that distinction was more apparent than real. Borg also had a fiery temper, he just controlled it better than Mac did.
Indeed, a more-accurate title for the movie would have been Borg Vs. Borg and McEnroe Vs. McEnroe, because both men’s struggles were as much with themselves as with the guys across the net. That sort of inner drama probably is more frequent than we know at sports’ highest levels.
The movie is a Swedish production, directed by a Dane, so it figures it would be more about Borg than McEnroe. Sverrir Gudnason, the Swedish actor who played Borg, is a dead ringer for the bland good looks of the tennis player, as are, I’d guess, a good many other young men in his native land. McEnroe is played by the American actor Shia Lebeouf, who bears only a passing resemblance to the real-life character. That alone made him harder to relate to.
The focus of the movie was the epic 1980 Wimbledon final between the two men, sometimes hailed as the best tennis match ever. Borg, 24 years old at the time to Mac’s 21, won that one in five sets, so it’s ending likely was pleasing to the Swedish audience. The full rivalry was as close as it could be, with each man winning 11 times in their 22 head-to-head meetings. Twelve of those were in tournament finals and, again, their final toll was even at six.
Mac had the last laugh, though, beating Borg in their last three Grand Slam finals, at the U.S. Open in 1980 and at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1981. Borg would retire from tennis the year after that, and the case often has been made that his decision stemmed directly from those losses.
The best actor in the film is Stellan Skarsgard, a veteran Swedish performer with a long list of international credits; if you’re a movie fan you’ll recognize him when you see him. He plays Lennart Bergelin, Borg’s career-long coach and constant companion. Really, the Borg of the movie was a Team Borg, a threesome consisting of him, the coach and Borg’s then-girlfriend and later wife (the first of three) Marianna Simionesca. She’s played by Tuva Novotny, a Swedish actress with a Czech name.e plays LennartH
The function of the coach and girlfriend seemed to have been to keep Borg from slipping off the rails enroute to his tennis destiny. Bergelin spotted the young Borg as a kid prodigy with a temper so volatile as to be potentially destructive; early scenes depicted the teenaged him (played by his real-life son Leo) breaking racquets, slamming doors and assaulting trees in a Swedish forest after tennis setbacks. Bergelin calls him out more than once, telling him to shape up or ship out. He finally does so but not without adopting obsessive routines and doing a lot of staring into space. Winning for Borg wasn’t everything, it was the only thing, and without it there was no point in playing. Thus, his early retirement.
McEnroe was the second banana in the piece. He’s portrayed as being almost as nasty off the court as on, with the disposition of a hornet and a vocabulary to match. At one point in the movie a fellow pro tells Mac “nobody likes you,” but he doesn’t appear bothered by the news. He’s as driven as Borg, only noisier.
Mac's short shrift was a shame because the movie didn’t answer the one question I always had about him, namely, how he could be in full tantrum one moment and a few moments later resume performing at the top of his fine-tuned game. Perhaps relatedly, and also not addressed in the movie, was the fact that McEnroe liked tennis a lot more than Borg did. Mac won his last Grand Slam title at age 25 but stayed on the main pro tour eight years more and then moved on to “masters” and “seniors” levels of competition, even until today.
Additionally, he became a Davis Cup captain and a television commentator on the sport, a role he still fills with distinction. From all appearances he’s become a pretty nice guy, someone, in the current parlance, you’d like to have a beer with.
I recall the Borg-McEnroe era fondly because, back then, tennis still had the stylistic differences that made the sport interesting to watch. The main division there was the baseliner-versus-net rusher one than the two players embodied, Borg the former and Mac the latter. Theirs wasn’t the last such classic men’s matchup (Sampras versus Agassi was) but it was a great one, maybe the greatest.
Alas, by around the year 2000 advances in racquet technology had given a decisive and perhaps permanent advantage to the baseliners that made the serve-and-volley game all but extinct. Using today’s high-powered racquetry, players can return serves with almost as much speed as they’re delivered, turning the net area into a no-man’s (or woman’s) land. Now, everyone plays the same game, and if the players don’t wear different-colored clothes it’s tough to tell them apart. I’m not one to yearn for the good old days, but with tennis I do.