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Byron Shire
May 19, 2021

Cinema Review: Borg V McEnroe

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Because the leitmotif is tennis, you might worry that this comes too soon on the heels of Battle of the Sexes to be relevant. Forget about that. The two films are the same but significantly different. The first deals with gender politics and sexuality, whereas Janus Metz’s fabulous movie digs deep into the emotional and psychological makeup of his contrasting subjects (though the emphasis is definitely on Björn Borg). In 1980, Sweden’s Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), still only 25, was attempting to win his fifth straight Wimbledon title. The brash young challenger was John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf). To those of us who only watched from afar, Borg was the embodiment of ice-cool, unflappable concentration, whilst the abrasive American was a loud-mouthed brat. I was around at the time and, try as I might, I cannot recall McEnroe ever yelling ‘fuck’ on court (he would have been sent-off if he did, for sure), so Metz’s over-use of the word seems a clanging anachronism, possibly intended to ‘speak to’ an audience unfamiliar with how it was then (re-writing history to make a point should not be necessary). Be that as is may, public perceptions aren’t always right, and the revelation that Borg was himself an enfant terrible allows us to get behind the impenetrable barrier that he presented to the outside world. It helps enormously that Gudnason bears a striking resemblance to Borg. You really do feel that you have got to know him – and are onside with him – by the time the climactic match begins. LaBeouf, if not having McEnroe’s facial features, has the aggro and single-mindedness, and also the egocentricity that is now rampant, and sadly lauded as ‘showmanship’, in professional sport (maybe if you won something, Nick Kyrgios, you could get away with your tanties). Not dissimilar to Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) in the way that it made real human beings of F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauder, this touches the heart in a way that Billie Jean King v Bobby Riggs never quite did.

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