Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
Turns out some of my 1970s heroes were the opposite of what I thought they were.
Back then, Steve Martin seemed the hippest host of the hippest show on television; but then you read his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” and realize what an absolute square he was. He was such a square that while others were marching for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, he was doing magic tricks at Knotts Berry Farm. That’s like writing online movie reviews during the Trump era.
And if there was anything we knew about five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, it was this: He was emotionless. Borg’s smiling face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1980, and I remember adults commenting on how odd it looked. Borg didn’t smile. He was a tennis machine. He was an ice machine.
Not so much, it turns out.
Did anyone else think of “The Natural? At the end of that movie, Roy Hobbs, an old, hobbled man of 39, fresh from the hospital, faces a blonde-haired, strong-armed boy from the farmland. He faces his younger self, in other words. In a perverse way, that’s Borg here. The revelation—both in “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the excellent HBO documentary “Fire and Ice”—is that as a very young man Borg wasn’t ice; he was fire. He was so passionate, so determined to win, he kept running into trouble. To succeed in Sweden, he had to learn to subsume his rage. And he did. Maybe if he’d grown up on Long Island, like McEnroe, he could’ve let loose.
Did anyone else think of Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? In that novel, Roth’s doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, is a huge success, a literary lion, but he’s also just received a deathbed curse from his father and can’t write anymore. He has constant backpain—perhaps psychosomatic—and dreams of going to med school and becoming the nice Jewish doctor every parent wants. At the least, he wants a different job. At most, he wants to be a different person.
That’s Borg as the movie starts. Early on, we see him duck into a café in France to avoid fans. The man running the place doesn’t recognize him, which, given his celebrity status, not to mention his distinctive, iconic look—long hair, headband, eyes close together—was like not recognizing Ali in his prime. But it’s a relief for Borg. Hanging in the café, he pretends to be an electrician named Rune. He pretends to be his father. Anything other than being himself.
Borg, here, is not too cold; he’s too hot. The superstitions of sports fans are nothing next to him. Wade Boggs (eating chicken every lunch for 20 years because the first time he did it he went 4-4) is a piker in comparison. Borg has to do everything the same way: stay at the same hotel, ride in the same car, and on the same side, eat the same foods. All of that was necessary to get him to the top and so he has to keep doing it. Because the only place he can go from there is down. And that’s death. What does his coach, Lenert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), say? It’s first or nothing for him. Second or third might as well be 1,000th. “When he starts losing,” Bergelin says, “it’s over.”
Excellent casting, by the way. Sverrir Gudnason is Bjorn Borg’s physical doppelganger and Shia LaBeouf is John McEnroe’s temperamental one. In a way, LeBeouf’s is beyond typecasting. He’s like meta-typecasting. It would be a joke if it weren’t so perfect.
As doppelgangers go, Gudnason is slightly better looking than Borg and a whole lot older. He was about 39 when this was filmed. Whereas Borg in 1980—when most of this is set? After winning four straight Wimbledons and going for his fifth, and seeming like the grand old man of tennis? I was shocked when I found out. He’d just turned 24 years old. He won his first Wimbledon at 19 and his last at 24 and he retired at 26.
Anyway, that’s the dynamic. Each man isn’t quite who he seems to be on the court or in the press. McEnroe is studied and measured, Borg is seething behind his mask. He’s a bit of an asshole; he pushes everyone away. He mocks his coach. “What are you going to do—drone on about your lousy three quarter finals?” he says. Those were crowning achievements for Bergelin, but to Borg it’s not No. 1 so it might as well be nothing. “When did it stop being fun?” his girlfriend asks him. The movie, Swedish, makes McEnroe seem healthy in comparison.
They’re almost the same. They’re battling each other, sure, but they’re also battling us.
“Everyone acts like this is easy,” Borg complains privately. “You don’t understand what it takes to play tennis,” McEnroe says publicly.
Is this dynamic enough to sustain a feature-length film? Yes.
Did I want more? Yes.
Stockholm is closer to Minnesota than Long Island
I’d forgotten that McEnroe won the mythic 18-16 tie-breaking set. Borg was up two sets to one, and he had seven match points, and McEnroe beat back each one, and won the set, and forced the fifth. What I would’ve liked from the movie? A greater sense of how Borg culled up what reserves he had to win. How do you come back from that? How do you not tumble? He didn’t. Is it glorious—not tumbling—or is it part of the same psychosis? You can’t tumble because that’s death. He’s beating back death.
For what it’s worth, I was a Borg guy when all of this was going on; I hated McEnroe. I suppose I should’ve been rooting for the American, just on principle, but it wasn’t even a question. The way Borg did it, unsmiling and professional, is the way I thought you did it. It was Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew. You didn’t celebrate when you hit a homerun or scored a touchdown, you just bowed your head and trotted the bases or back to the bench. You were almost embarrassed. In this way, Stockholm was closer to Minnesota than Long Island. Still is.
Borg won the 1980 battle but McEnroe won the war. The McEnroes of the world are everywhere now. What I thought was the norm is now a quaint anomaly. I miss it.