The ground strokes are familiar in “McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice,” HBO’s latest entry in its estimable series of sports documentaries. Traveling back to a time when men from the United States were actually considered among the elite of professional tennis, the docu examines the relationship between American bad-boy John McEnroe and implacable Swede Bjorn Borg, highlighting their classic five-set 1980 Wimbledon final that featured a memorable 34-point fourth-set tiebreaker. But the docu knocks the ball around a court that’s a bit too similar to last year’s excellent “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals,” and the comparisons aren’t flattering.
After a quick promise of the epic match to come, writer Aaron Cohen contrasts the two men — Borg’s blue-collar roots, his brutal workout regimen designed to build the stamina to outlast opponents; McEnroe’s upper-middle-class upbringing, a virtuoso talent who liked to train by playing doubles matches. The docu also successfully introduces the fact Borg’s trademark cool isn’t something he comes by naturally, even as that subtext undercuts the docu’s titular dichotomy.
The centerpiece is a set of four grand slam matches between the two men in 1980 and ’81, with the 1980 Wimbledon epic the main event. The filmmakers appropriately linger on the 18-16 tiebreaker, won by McEnroe, even as Borg went on to claim his fifth-straight Wimbledon title in the final set. Footage from the other three matches is comparatively sparse, with more time afforded the shocking announcement of Borg’s retirement immediately after he was soundly beaten by McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open, with evidence to suggest, despite Borg’s denials, that the Swede’s need to be the best may have exceeded even McEnroe’s fiery competitiveness.
Though leavened with comments from coaches and journos, “Fire & Ice” too frequently plays a bit fast and loose with its timelines, which can make the two men’s parallel achievements difficult to follow. Their comparative ages — Borg is 2 1/2 years older — is never spelled out, and an otherwise excellent clip meant to demonstrate Borg’s youthful anger seems to defy chronology. It doesn’t help that Borg, who bravely faces the camera in English, has a grasp of syntax that’s not always easy to understand.
Ironically, even as the docu laments what might have been had Borg continued to challenge his rival, it loses steam recounting McEnroe’s flash of subsequent success, his own disillusionment with tennis and eventual retirement, drawing a noteworthy parallel that neither man won a major championship past the age of 25. With almost a quarter of the pic’s runtime still left, a tabloid-tinged denouement can’t avoid instilling a “Behind the Music” vibe.
Now white-haired (Borg) and thinning (McEnroe), the two men are shown reminiscing, and there’s certainly a degree of comradeship, even fondness, between them. But McEnroe occasionally still has difficulty being gracious, and the privacy-loving Borg doesn’t always look completely comfortable in front of the lens. Where “Courtship of Rivals” established Magic and Bird’s beginnings as win-at-all-cost foes who discovered, at defining moments, a common bond that changed and deepened their relationship, “Fire & Ice” at times struggles to make its metamorphosis feel organic.
Nevertheless, the docu has its share of the kind of little-seen clips that seem to define HBO’s sports mission, chief among them a flair-up in the 1981 Wimbledon press room that resulted in Charlie Steiner physically scuffling with British journalist Nigel Clarke.
Ultimately, though, in comparison with HBO’s other entries in the genre, while “McEnroe/Borg” has its fiery moments, it feels like it’s constructed on thinner ice.