Biography Borg vs. McEnroe

Film Review: 'Borg vs. McEnroe' Captures the Essence of All Great Sports Rivalries

April 13, 2018Ferdosa Abdi

Borg vs. McEnroe is a compelling and gripping drama about one of the tensest rivalries in tennis history. The film focuses on the 1980 Wimbledon Championships, where Swedish tennis champ Björn Borg is going for his fifth consecutive win, and American John McEnroe emerges as his biggest rival. The two are drastically different people, and can only be defined as ice and fire. Borg is cool, level-headed, introverted and serious. McEnroe, simply put, is not.

The movie and its characters are very reminiscent of a recent sports drama about an epic race car rivalry, Ron Howard's Rush, which followed Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, as they compete in the 1976 Formula One motor-racing season. The two films provide an interesting double feature, as it reveals that no matter the sport, there are certain types of people who will make for an entertaining rivalry.

Rivalries like this occur when two opposing ideologies and personalities clash. Discipline vs. Chaos. Control vs. Recklessness. Wisdom vs. Imprudence. These are the tenets of every great rivalry. Yet, what Borg and Lauda both fail to realize is that there is method to their opponents' chaos, and what is always true is that our enemies are sometimes a reflection of who we truly are. What we think is unlike us, may be closer to us than we think.

Borg vs. McEnroe lacks the energy that could be found in Rush, but that is only natural for the sport being depicted. It is not the flashiest sport, but it is one that requires immense focus and concentration. It isn't a sport with high stakes like race car driving. Here we see that tennis is a whole body sport that is quite taxing on one's mind. Our rivals have very different approaches to tennis, but they both clearly feel a similar deep connection to the sport. They are more alike than the media gives them credit for.

A moment that encapsulates this is when McEnroe is speaking with a friend who relays to him Borg's meticulous routine, and describes Borg as not an iceberg but a volcano, keeping it all in, but ready to explode. It is in this moment — and with the aid of some flashbacks — that we see that Borg and McEnroe are two sides of the same coin. Sverrir Gudnason is superb as the seemingly ice-cold Swede. With very little he is able he convey so much of his character's struggles to maintain control of himself. Shia LaBeouf is a formidable rival for Gudnason, as he too puts in a nuanced performance for such a volatile character.

Although the characters are well-crafted and their differences and similarities are well-defined, the film has a languid pace that makes the whole experience feel rather tedious. Borg vs. McEnroe is slow, deliberate and tense, but for a sports drama that promises a heated rivalry it needs to pick up the pace. Other than the pacing, this is a finely crafted movie that seamlessly builds tension and excitement. It is a fascinating character study about the intense focus and dedication needed to be a great athlete, for no matter the sport the amount of sacrifices and effort needed to be great is the same.

Rivalries like Borg and McEnroe's, or Lauda and Hunt's, allow us to get a glimpse of the people behind the titles and medals. In this sense, Borg vs. McEnroe adds another layer to understanding what it takes to be great — to be a legend.

Borg vs. McEnroe releases April 13th, 2018 from Mongrel Media. The film has an MPAA rating of R for language throughout, and some nudity. Its runtime is 1 hr. 47 min.

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