Borg vs McEnroe

Tennis has never been the same since the 1980 Wimbledon men’s singles final.

For me, it has never got better than that fourth set tie-break between Sweden’s ice man Bjorn Borg and the brattish “kid from Queens” John McEnroe – 34 points of tension and high-wire skill, in which Borg lost seven championship points before McEnroe edged it 18-16, to take the final into a fifth set.

I didn’t want to go to Darren Essex’s party that day, even if they were going to McDonald’s (still a rare treat in the UK back then). So there I was, sitting with my Donnay racket at my feet and my sweatbands that stretched half way up my arms, watching every point on TV, with my Mum saying things that Mum’s always say, like “It’s a lovely day, you should be outside.”  All I know is, it was too much for me and I cried when my hero Borg lost that fourth set.

All that emotion, and yet Bjorn hardly flinched. Didn’t he care? You couldn’t tell from his expression. Nervelessly, he went on to win the fifth set and with it his fifth consecutive Wimbledon, but I know and he knows he was never the same thereafter.  I was only 11, but I knew I’d never forget that day.

And now it all comes flooding back in the Swedish movie Borg vs McEnroe, a drama in which the reconstruction of that fourth set epic is the centrepiece. Curiously, Borg’s actual triumph, the familiar drop to the knees, wasn’t the climax of the real match (because nothing could top that fourth set drama) and nor is it in the new movie.

It would have been had Hollywood made it, but this is very Swedish affair, directed by Janus Metz and starring Sverrir Gudnason as Borg. He gets the look of the inscrutable baseliner so accurately it’s unsettling: the eyes burn like coals, the beard, the hair (the bit of Borg my own tight Jewfro curls could never emulate), the shoulders, the lithe frame, the soft-peddle gait like a panther. He even gets the signature double-handed backhand just right.

On the other side of the net, maverick actor Shia Lebeouf nails Supermac, too, but he’s easier to figure out, with his tantrums and swearing. This film is really all about Borg, and trying to get inside the head of the man who gave so little away. Maybe there’s nothing in there to figure out.

We flash back to his youth, when apparently he was a moody little kid (played in the film by a certain Leo Borg – yes, the actual son of…), prone to storming off into the woods and yelling if he ever lost. His coach, Lennart Bergelin, spots the talent and harnesses it, training the impetuous youth to never show his feelings, taking life one point at a time. He was really a volcano under it all, you see.

Bergelin is played by one of my favourite actors, Stellan Skarsgard, making his first Swedish-language movie for 20 years and loping around like a great bear. It’s a father/son relationship that twists and turns. Meanwhile, Borg’s fiancee, former Romanian tennis player Mariana Simionescu, is played impressively and attractively by Tuva Novotny although she doesn’t have much to do other than soothe tensions between Bjorn and Lennart and look nervous in reaction shots up in that special Wimbledon box. I guess even she couldn’t get inside that head.

Yes,  there’s much fun to be had in the nostalgia of just hearing other names from the heyday of 70s tennis, such as Vitus Gerulaitis, Ilie Nastase and Brian Gottfried. There is glamour and nightclubbing, the rock stars with rackets instead of guitars. 

I’m a big fan of the clobber, too, all those Fila tracksuit tops for Borg and tight Tacchini shorts, the wooden Wilson racket, the Nike GTS trainers with the baby blue swoosh for McEnroe. Wimbledon was label central, every player a billboard and fashion statement. Oddly, they obviously didn’t have the budget to bring all those labels together and strike the endorsement deals, so we don’t really get the label showdown that meant so much to me as a kid and later became the battleground of so many casuals or even just early Wham! fans.

So it could have been all disco and funk, pop and fashion. But this a Swedish film and Borg is it’s conundrum, it’s icy heart. What this movie really focuses on is the loneliness and the exile (Borg was literally that, tax exiled in Monaco), the dullness of the circuit, the waiting, the pressure, the routine and the relentless, quasi-existential struggle of playing singles, whacking a ball that just keeps coming back at you. 

Perhaps as a riposte to the old McEnroe expression “You cannot be serious”, this film shows you really can be. Amid all the memories, the colour and clothes, film maker Janus Metz – who’s actually Danish – finds the bleakness, a dour internal struggle of the soul, making this legendary Centre Court tussle the equivalent of Bergman’s chess match with the Grim Reaper.

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