In 1980, the sport of tennis was dominated by a mad man. He had behavior problems and anger issues; he made life miserable for everyone around him. His name was Björn Borg.
“Borg vs. McEnroe” is a college course in psychology and sociology masquerading as a sports movie. It explores the troubled psyche of champions. And it exposes the ugly but predictable ways that the sports media twists their already fragile minds.
John McEnroe is the bigger star now, but at the time Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was the undisputed king of tennis. When we meet him, Borg is 24 and he has already won Wimbledon four times. He is easily the most accomplished Swedish athlete of all time. And he is acclaimed all over Europe for his unprecedented success, his Nordic good looks, and his gentlemanly behavior. “How will it feel to win a record 5th straight Wimbledon title?” a reporter asks. “No special feelings,” Borg respectfully answers.
But that Björn Borg – the heroic heartthrob with ice in his veins – was just a media creation. Fake News, ESPN style. Danish director Janus Metz takes us back to Borg’s childhood, where the young Swede was shunned and shamed for his bad behavior and his rage issues. We see him kicked out of tennis school for being a low class ruffian.
Only one man – former tennis pro Lennart Bergalin – is willing to take a chance and train the fiery Borg. Bergalin orders the angry child to hide his true self in public and channel all his rage into his tennis game. It works like a charm on the court and on his public reputation, but it has ugly consequences for his personal life.
Adult Borg is an insufferable control freak, completely addicted to his many OCD routines. The pressure of having an entire continent counting on him has made winning a joyless responsibility. Borg lashes out at Bergalin and his patient fiancé because he can only express emotions behind closed doors.
Gudnason does an amazing job of showing us how close Borg is to losing it. In the film’s most poignant scene, Borg bravely smiles at his nemesis John McEnroe. McEnroe gives Borg a cold stare in return. In that moment, we see that McEnroe is laser focused on becoming the champion. And Borg is a lonely, isolated young man who is desperate for a friend.
And Borg is right; why shouldn’t they be friends? Director Janus Metz argues that Borg and McEnroe are the same man from two different angles. The only difference is that John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) was from Queens, and no one ever told him that he had to hide his anger from the world.
Yet, these two very similar guys were treated completely differently by the vampiric Sports Media. McEnroe was painted as the classless clown who was threatening to diminish the entire sport with his crass childishness.
Metz explores how the Media creates a false narrative and then twists reality to find evidence to support it. We see a press conference where McEnroe pleads with the Media vultures to ask him substantive questions about tennis. The reporters totally ignore his plea and continue bombarding him with gotcha questions about his behavior. This, in turn, has the intended effect of making McEnroe act like the petulant jerk they painted him as.
This is not a must-see. It’s actually not even the best film made about the 1980 Wimbledon Finals. The HBO comedy “7 Days in Hell” is a more sublime take on the same subject. But “Borg vs. McEnroe” makes an effective statement about the pain and isolation of stardom.
Next time you think you know a celebrity because you’ve read about him in the Tabloids, think about Björn Borg. You probably know absolutely nothing.