“Borg vs. McEnroe” is the story of one of the great tennis rivalries of all time, between Swedish efficiency expert Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and explosive American underdog John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), as defending champion Borg competes for his record-breaking fifth Wimbledon title. But it also is the backstory of one of the great tennis friendships, and for someone like me who knew nothing about the match in question (and cared less about who won), that twist — revealed practically in overtime, after the film has effectively ended — made me want to go right back in and watch the movie a second time.
As in competing tennis picture “The Battle of the Sexes” (which seems a far more commercial prospect, in the U.S. at least, given its added political dimension and likable lead actors), director Janus Metz’s stylish, Scandi-made behind-the-scenes sports movie builds to an extended on-court showdown — in this case, a virtuoso, 20-minute tennis montage that breathes fresh suspense into the foregone conclusion of the match itself. And yet, the outcome feels like something of an anti-climax, not because we already know how it ends (I didn’t, and many won’t), but rather, because it doesn’t really matter.
In reality, vast amounts of money, national sentiments, endorsement contracts and potential Wheaties box-covers ride on who wins and who loses Wimbledon, but the way Metz approaches it, the stakes are entirely personal. Both men want to be the best in the world, and as we know, that’s a title they can’t hold at the same time. Oddly, as casting goes, LaBeouf (in the role of unfiltered newcomer McEnroe) is the better-known star, whereas reigning champ Borg is played by an actor hardly anyone outside of Sweden will recognize (Sverrir Gudnason, whose long hair and Nordic good looks suggest early-2000s Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel).
At the outset, Borg and McEnroe appear to be polar opposites — a sentiment directly voiced by a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host (Colin Stinton), who tells his explosive American guest, “You and Borg are as different as two people can be.” As if to illustrate his point, McEnroe proceeds to lose his cool on-air, frustrated that his interviewer seems more interested in McEnroe’s rival (a seemingly emotionless automaton) than he does in his actual guest. Whereas Borg is viewed as a consummate professional and gentleman on-court and off, McEnroe is characterized as a hair-trigger hothead, who argues with referees, swears at the audience and swats the air with his racket, as if looking to hurt someone when a rally goes bad. Playing tennis may not seem the best use of LaBeouf’s talents, but the star is terrific in a role that shrewdly plays off his controversial off-screen persona.
The contrast between the two players seems like a great starting point from which to tell the story of their big confrontation. But then, about 48 minutes in, as the flashbacks start to get a bit more complex (until then, we’ve only seen them as ultra-competitive kids who’ve been practicing the sport since a young age), “Borg vs. McEnroe” reveals that the rivals are not opposites at all, but variations on the same personality type. It’s just that Borg has received an entirely different kind of training, from Swedish coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård, who brings an avuncular compassion to his role as Borg’s closest advocate). As a young teen, Borg was every bit as combustible, receiving reprimands for talking back to the officials and smashing his racket when things didn’t go his way, but Bergelin taught him to channel that energy into this gameplay.
Studying one another on TV, and recognizing aspects of themselves in each other, McEnroe wonders what happens when the pressure becomes too much for the well-behaved Borg to contain, while Borg sees past McEnroe’s shouty shenanigans and recognizes his extreme underlying discipline as a player. The more Metz reveals of each of their upbringing, the more they start to seem like variations on the same character — a theory that comes into full focus (at least as dramatized here) when they finally face off in the final round of Wimbledon, 1980.
In retrospect, these scenes play almost like the coy initial-curiosity stages of a love affair, as does the first press conference they share together, in which McEnroe stares down the table at his future friend. It’s a convenient theory for the movie to float — that they eventually bonded out of mutual respect and a recognition of these shared traits — but one that doesn’t extend to how differently they prepared. Whereas McEnroe goes out and gets wasted at the club with a bunch of sexy tennis groupies, Borg’s night-before ritual is a mix of superstition and routine, as when he and Bergelin test the strings of nearly 50 rackets in order to choose the perfectly calibrated weapons for the next day’s match.
It’s not easy to turn these kind of details into a compelling piece of entertainment, and yet, Metz mostly succeeds, through a mix of raw energy (the director of terrific Afghanistan war doc “Armadillo” combines quick cutting with a handheld nonfiction aesthetic) and oblique scripting — which is to say, Swedish screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl adopts the approach sweeping European cinema at the moment (seen in films such as “A Prophet” and “BPM”), in which conventional dramatic scenes are rejected, in favor of a prismatic collection of well-chosen, yet unexpected and borderline-banal moments that reveal far more about the characters in question.
For example, there’s the scene in which Borg misplaces his wallet and keys, forcing him to walk to a nearby cafe, where he shares a connection with the celebrity-oblivious bartender. As written, the scene does virtually nothing to set up the match, but reveals much about Borg’s character, and how his success has — as one character later articulates it — made him “the loneliest person on the whole planet.”
When the outcome of past rivalries is well known in vintage sports stories such as this, competition itself becomes the subject, and though “Borg vs. McEnroe” isn’t top of its subgenre (that would be Ron Howard’s Formula 1 rivalry “Rush,” best of the past decade at least), it’s dazzling in its own right. When the big tennis finale arrives, Metz finds all sorts of ways to make the match interesting, blending urgent music, creative camera vantages and ridiculously hyperbolic announcer commentary to generate the desired tension. But the real reason we’re invested is far simpler than that: Metz and his cast have made us care about both Borg and McEnroe by this point. Weirdly, their personalities seem to disappear on the Wimbledon court itself, and what results is a kind of intimate communion between the two, in which our respect for each — and their respect for one another — deepens profoundly.