If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
If— by Rudyard Kipling.
(Inscribed on the Entrance to the Wimbledon Centre Court)
Disclaimer: Borg vs. McEnroe is not a sports film.
As hard as it’s difficult to accept, sports films have come to occupy a certain niche in cinema the world over: the cinema of hope. I remember walking out of every sports film I’ve watched infused with a certain hope that at the end, every single problem that life throws my way is and will always be temporary, and provided I slug it out, it’ll end up in eventual victory. Sports films are meant to make the audience feel like they’re the underdogs: the audience is supposed to live vicariously through the protagonist(s). Because at the end of the day, the truth is, we’re ordinary. Our lives almost never turn out to be the way we want them to be, and at the end of the day, most of us end up being unremarkable, ordinary, boring. And once we reach this passive truce with the overwhelming reality of life, we start resenting everything that even remotely reeks of the extraordinary, because at the end of the day, we couldn’t be that. We want the world to be just. We want the world to be fair. Nobody should get the easy way out, for they are extraordinary, or they have more resources than we have. Naturally, everyone likes an underdog story, for we all face our own injustices, and then we see these people at the top of the mountain, rolling through life as if it were nothing: we are the underdogs in our own little stories. And so every single famous sports film happens to be either a crime B-Movie made in the 1950s or an underdog story.
Janus Metz’s feature debut, Borg vs. McEnroe is an exception to this rule. This is not a story of an underdog overcoming all the odds to win against the big, bad, wolf; nor is it a story of crime, blackmailing and sport: This is the story of heartbreak, one point at a time. This is the story of two men, changing each other, and the course of tennis history within the space of five sets. This is not a sports film: this is a study in how life feeds off sport, and how sport feeds off life.
The film begins with a commentator narrating upon the events that are about to unfold during the course of the film: 1980. Finals of the Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tournament in the history of the sport: the holy grail of Lawn Tennis. Bjorn Borg, the world #1, chasing his fifth consecutive title. Against him, John McEnroe, the young upstart from America, chasing his first Wimbledon title. Janus Metz, one of the best documentary filmmakers our generation has witnessed, brings his approach to this film as well: the lines between feature and narrative are blurred throughout the film, and rarely does it feel that the audience is watching a well-written, polished narrative feature. Attention is paid to the smallest of details and the research behind this film seems exhaustive, which makes Borg vs. McEnroe the first true tennis film: a film that an ordinary tennis fan can live or die by. Under the garb of a sports drama, Metz gives us a psychological drama and a thriller about a real-life sporting event, which also doubles up as a character study of two sportsmen — one at the end of his prime and one at the beginning.
A child is practicing groundstrokes against a wall, somewhere in Sweden. He operates with a mechanical precision: his strokes seem machine-like, and his face is stoic. His eyes don’t leave the ball. He’s imagining he’s representing Sweden in the finals of the Davis Cup, and it’s a really gruelling match. There’s an appetite in his manner: an appetite for victory. The fire in his belly rages. The world is his for the taking, all he has to do is keep hitting the ball. One point at a time. At a distance, his father is recording him play with a home video camera.
What do you want from Tennis? His coach asks, in a scene later on.
To be the best.
No, in the world. The boy answers, matter-of-factly.
And this is the Bjorn Borg we are introduced to. Ambitious, fearless. Tennis is his life, and he knows that one day, he’ll be the best in the world. He’s full of emotions, and it shows on court. By 1980, however, we see a completely different Borg — we see the Iceman. Unstoppable on the court, he never displays emotion, on or off it. He is extremely fit, and plays with consistency that will never be matched in the history of the sport. He has settled into a habit he would never break throughout his career. The same car for use in tournaments, the same hotel and the same room, the same towels and the same equipment. He didn’t shave, and he didn’t have sex throughout the fortnight of the tournament. Every night, he would sleep at the same temperature and monitor his heart, so that it would beat less than 60 times a minute, opposed to the average 72: he’s superhuman.
Human beings tend to show some tendencies of falling into patterns or habits or schedules — whatever you call it — with age. As one ages, one starts to lose the energy that youth brings with itself. Once that starts happening, they tend to hold on to this energy as hard as possible, but at the end of the day age is our one true master and once that realisation hits, the only thing that stands between them and insanity is patterns. These patterns are the threads which hold their sanity together: they help them function, they help them go about their days, without everything falling apart.
Borg is 24 years old when the Wimbledon 1980 rolls around. Yet we see these habits firmly set in his being for whatever he’s been through is more than what most of us will go through in our lives. Inside this shell of the Ice Man, we see him for who he is: someone who is tired of all of this. The careless optimism of chasing one’s dreams comes at the cost of one devastating question:
What if getting to the top of the mountain doesn’t change anything?
The same child we saw practicing in front of a wall now lives in an apartment overlooking the sea in Monte Carlo with his fiancé. He was brought to Monte Carlo by his talent agency, IMG, for Monte Carlo was tax-free: the reason Bjorn Borg became one of the richest athletes in history. We see him living a practically solitary life, practicing, eating and walking alone. Mechanically hitting balls thrown by a machine, we see a man dead behind the eyes. He keeps on hitting his balls, all his emotion concentrated on strings attached to a long wooden frame. In one of the most powerful sequences of the film, Bjorn Borg, world number one, runs and hides inside a coffee shop in order to avoid the crowd bothering him on the streets of Monte Carlo, and when the man behind the counter asks him what he does, he tells him he’s an electrician. It’s clear: that child didn’t want to end up like this. The man at the top is not Bjorn Borg: the man on top is the Iceman, World #1.
The truth is, he wasn’t born the Iceman. Nobody is born the Iceman. It was someone he became, for becoming Iceman was the only thing that stood between him and his obsession, and thus his insanity. In one of the most underplayed sequences in the film, Borg is brought to the place where we first saw him play in the beginning for the shooting of a commercial, and there, with pressure of his commercial interest and the press lining up on him, he forgets what wall it was that he played against. He’s so far removed from his childhood that he can’t even remember.
As a child, Borg hated losing. He wanted to be the best, and it was clear: losing made all the difference in the world to him. He would start throwing tantrums as soon as he started losing, and would even argue with the umpire if he thought the decision was faulty. He had all the potential in the world, but his attitude — his attitude, it seemed, always stood in between him and the success. He was far away from the stoic, consistent Borg of 1980: Young Borg was childish, erratic and stubborn. Sverrir Gudnason, in his English language debut, plays the role of Adult Borg to perfection: the intensity and the stoicism in his expression perfectly matches that of Bjorn Borg, and his playing mannerism, especially the backhand swing are done to perfection; he practiced tennis for 2 hours every day for 7 months to prepare for this role. He even resembles Borg and his impossibly good looks, and if put side-by-side, an inexperienced eye would find it difficult to distinguish between the two. The amount of effort the actor put into modelling himself as Borg translates perfectly on the screen.
How does it feel knowing that you’ll make history? A reporter asks Borg, before the 1980 Wimbledon.
No special feelings, he replies, no expression on his face.
At the age of 15, the legend dictates, he was “discovered” by the captain of the Swedish Davis Cup team, Lennart Bergelin. With whom he has the famous ‘Best in the world’ conversation mentioned previously. That’s when it is revealed to him something he’d never thought about — something that differentiates the great from the crowds that pick up a tennis racquet with stars in their eyes every single year. Tennis is a gentleman’s sport; it has been this way since times unknown, and that’s what it will be till the end of time. Virtue is the key to success. Without virtue, one will never succeed: even if one does, one will never be remembered. Lance Armstrong won all the accolades the planet has to offer, but his victories lacked virtue; his reputation now is the equivalent of a vacuum. Victory without grace is not a victory. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, one thing has slowly become clear to us as a civilisation: Out of everything a person accumulates in their lives, it is virtue that lasts the longest. Everything, even if you’ve worked years to acquire it, will eventually wither away. And rebel Borg doesn’t learn this the easy way: he runs away from the academy, after what he considers ‘psychological torture’ by his coach. That’s when his coach asks him to promise him to concentrate every single emotion he has into his tennis racquet, and nowhere else, in exchange of making him the best in the world.
And thus, from the ashes of anger, the Ice-Borg, one of the best players in the history of tennis, is born.
‘You cannot possibly call this out. The chalk flew up man! The chalk flew up!’
These words echo throughout the arena. The American looks at the referee, his face exasperated as the umpire stands by his decision. He badmouths the referee, who threatens the young upstart with a warning, and a downpour of boos erupts from the crowd.
The American is John McEnroe. At 21, he’s The Player to look forward to in the court at the time. If not for his playing style, then for his reputation. One British paper calls him ‘Superbrat’: if Borg is the Iceman, he’s Hot Blood personified. He’s a keg of chilled beer in a world of Earl Grey teas. The only reason he’s made it till here, despite every single person in the audience rooting against him, is because he’s too good at this lawn tennis thing. He’s ambitious, he’s young and he, like the Swede, thinks the world is his for the taking. He’s loud music, he’s a drawing on the wall of a five-star made by an adult, he’s late nights and he’s booze: he’s America. Although people in his time called him the worst representative of American Values, he was its best representative: he was the insufferable co-worker you tolerate because they’re the best at what they do.
Although there’s more to him than he lets on: during a match, he purposely throws a tantrum, for he knew that would break his opponent’s concentration. The director and the screenwriter, Ronnie Sandahl, tease the audience time and again with this concept. Were the tantrums huge tricks or were they real, actual emotional responses to what was going on?
Coming into Wimbledon, he’s almost obsessed with Borg. Borg had been having a four year undefeated run in London, and all eyes turned towards one man — the man they knew could beat Borg at Wimbledon. He was the same eighteen-year old who had defeated Borg in straight sets in front of his country’s king in their first encounter. If there was a man who could beat Borg in his superhuman form, it was McEnroe. Even then the press wasn’t concerned with him in general, they were all obsessing over Borg, and whether anyone would be able to beat him at all.
Nobody ever likes to be the less regarded sibling in the family. Nobody wants to sit at the sidelines all the time while their elder, more accomplished sibling takes away all possible attention from everyone around them. No matter what they do, the elder sibling does something way better. If one grows up in such a fractured home, one where one sibling is preferred over another, one almost invariably tends to be looked upon as inferior than others: the technical term for this is ‘low self-esteem’. These people continue to be insecure of whatever they do all their lives, for nobody ever told them they were special, for their achievements were never paid attention to, nobody told them they had a standing in the world. We don’t live in a world of perfect human beings — we all grow up in imperfect families and thus all of us suffer some damage that mostly lasts us a lifetime, provided we decide to do something about it. The film rarely divulges details of his childhood, but we can see what the press and everything around was doing to McEnroe by the time the tournament rolled around: his self-esteem was taking a hit. But what one almost invariably tends to forget is, the ignored sibling grows up with a certain anger inside them: a certain hunger to prove themselves in front of the world, and if Freud must be consulted, to their parents — look at me, Ma! I’m special too. I am something in the world. I am not who you think I was.
This obsession also starts to affect McEnroe’s life. He starts fighting with his mother. The film also suggests that he tried to steal Peter Fleming’s ankle support to win their match in the Quarter-finals. His tantrums get worse as the tournament progresses. Imagine living in the shadow of your elder brother all your life. No matter what you did, he outmatched you and did something better, and as a result, you stood right next to the spotlight, where nobody can see anything. Now imagine you get a chance to beat him at what he does: that’s what gives McEnroe an edge. He wants to beat Borg, so that he could stop the shoe from biting.
Shia Lebouf brings a certain gravitas into his role as John McEnroe. He had to lose some muscle, and the prosthetics do the rest: after a point of time, he starts looking like Johnny Mac himself. The casting must also be praised here; one of the reasons why LeBouf was able to play this character to perfection was because of his reputation of having a bit of a confrontational attitude, which makes him a controversial actor. Anyone with even the most remote interest in making a film must notice: this is how you cast an actor. Usually it’s the actor that chooses the role, but once in a while, you will come across a role that chooses the actor. And when that happens, the performance reaches another level. It becomes that one role for the actor that they will be remembered for: and this seems the case for Shia LeBouf. To me, he’ll always be Johnny Mac. The actor grew up watching and admiring McEnroe, for in McEnroe’s life he saw his own: growing up in a tough household in Queen’s, with parents who couldn’t be satisfied. He was convinced there was no way to win, and that’s how he turned out to be so competitive, just like McEnroe.
McEnroe’s obsession with Borg, we find out, is not new: Borg happened to be his idol growing up, and he and Borg are connected forever: McEnroe is Borg before he became the Iceman. Same hunger, same attitude, same fear of loss, everything. The only difference is the attitude. Borg is a gentleman, while McEnroe is the ‘Superbrat’; Borg is a baseline runner, who could return everything, while McEnroe is the net runner, the serve-and-volleyer, who could serve a bullet and if you manage to return it, he’d rush to the net and murder you. Borg is ice-cold nerves, while McEnroe is hot-blooded veins. Borg is living through McEnroe, vicariously, even though he doesn’t know it. McEnroe is Borg, without all the cognitive dissonance.
And it is the clash of these two personalities that goes down in the finals of the Wimbledon, 1980.
There’s a reason the film is named ‘Borg vs. McEnroe’: even though it tells the audience the story of the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, make no mistake, this is Borg’s film. His character takes the centre stage, and most of the drama revolves around his story. Around the end of the film, it came to my notice that the screen time McEnroe’s storyline gets is far smaller: both in terms of runtime and complexity, and this might be the only flaw that I could find in this film.
Throughout the tournament, we see the pressure mounting on Borg. He’s spent the last 9 years of his life being someone he wasn’t meant to be, and it has started to eat him from the inside: it starts affecting his play, and it starts affecting his relationships with the two people closest to him: his fiancé, and his life-long coach. He’s not who they say he is: inside the Iceman, there’s a volcano waiting to erupt, and McEnroe is just a little catalyst to it. There’s mounting pressure on Borg, and the fact that he’s clearly growing disillusioned with the life he’s been leading is clear from the get go. He lives a life with which he cannot reach passive truce, for this is not him. No healthy human being can live without emotional expression; we need to express our emotions or they tend to form a clout inside our heads, and eat us alive from there. That’s what has been happening to Borg throughout his life: instead of showing what he felt, he beat on, aloof, distant. This sounds good for a fictional character, but Borg, at the end of the day is human. This is a classic cognitive dissonance, which occurs when the mind follows up a stimuli with an inappropriate reaction, which almost always is artificially induced. At this rate, he was supposed to go insane a long time ago: maybe Bjorn Borg is superhuman, for he could survive all of that and still go on to win tournaments and be the best in the world. Because the Iceman is a symbol of his obsession to be the very best, like no one ever was.
This all culminates with him firing his life-long coach for a while. His coach was the only voice in his head telling him that he had to betray all emotion and put it all into his game. This approach works fine for a month, an year at best, but once one keeps living with that for the good part of a decade, it starts taking a toll. He fires Lennart, which is the peak of his disillusion. This, however, does not affect his play for he was the best in the world at what he did and could beat anyone in the world in his sleep. Inside the Ice-Borg, we see a boy of 15 who thought the world of tennis and like Icarus, flew too close to the sun and burnt his own wings.
However, right before his match, he receives another message from heaven, through the corporeal form of his coach. One last match. Put all your emotion it every single point, every single stroke. All the tension that’s mounted throughout your life, go ahead and put all of it into your racquet. Hit the ball like you’ll never get to hit it again, because if you lose this match, you might not be able to.
On the other hand, McEnroe has to prove to the world that he’s not the inferior sibling; he is, in fact, better than the elder brother. It’s Gentleman vs. Brat. Baseline vs. the Net. Ice vs. Fire. Civilisation vs. Its Discontents. All in the space of five sets.
Although Borg was known for his slow starts, he outdoes himself in the first set: he plays in a way that does not befit the greatest player in the history of the sport: he nets easy balls, and he’s far from his consistent self; he can’t get going. Maybe he’s mentally done, now more than ever. He loses the first set, 6-1. However, he comes back to the one mantra that every tennis player has to stick to, otherwise the sport will end up killing them:
One point at a time.
This is what a tennis player lives and dies by. Without it, it is almost impossible for one to go on playing in the face of defeat. Every single point has a life of its own. The moment you toss the ball, little else seems to matter. All that matters is the little green dot and you hitting it back.
The foremost virtue that tennis teaches you is to control your own instinctive reaction. We get adrenalin rushes, whether you a point or lose on, whether it was a superhuman effort or your opponent faltered. But what tennis, or any sport, teaches you is to master that natural impulse, and go back to the baseline, and on to the next point. You reset. You live, you thrive, you fall, and you die, within the space of a minute. On to the next point, until you win or lose. One point at a time.
Borg grinds, and starts winning. He wins the next two sets, much to the McEnroe’s disbelief. He’s facing an onslaught. Johnny Mac looks defeated. He knows his chances are slim, because today, Borg is playing against his own self, and because Bjorn Borg doesn’t like to lose, he’s winning.
And that’s when the tables turn. In what is possibly the longest tennis sequence of the film, Borg and McEnroe reach the tie-break in the 4th set. Borg, who for the last two sets had been absolutely unstoppable, serves 7 championship points, and McEnroe saves all of them. Borg is on the edge. McEnroe knows, if he holds his own, he has the trophy. He just have to survive this set, for he’s confident now: he’s penetrated the impenetrable and reached Borg’s head, and can pull the strings. The tiebreak, which the Tennis Magazine called ‘The War of 18-16’, sees McEnroe defend 7 match points, all on Borg’s serve. We see Borg slowly unravelling as he loses every single match point — it wasn’t always that you saw Bjorn Borg lose match points in his day — and McEnroe and his father, who’s in the audience know it. Later, he called it the worst he’d ever felt on a tennis court.
McEnroe wins the set, eventually when Borg nets a routine drop shot. We cut to his father, who has tears in his eyes. McEnroe knows it. His father knows it, and the audience know it: McEnroe has the match won. He’s broken Borg mentally, and all he has to do is hold out his own.
Seven times Borg was one point away from the championship, and seven times he faltered. And when that happens, one’s invariable natural instinct is that there’s no way to win. There is some larger force, that doesn’t want you to win. This is where you expect him to fall — this is where you expect Borg to be down and out, this is where you expect him to be out of the match and fade away into obscurity. His concentration is shaky, and so is his confidence: but the audience must remember, it’s Bjorn Borg they’re watching. He’s not an underdog, he’s that one overpowered character in every video game. He’s the greatest in the history of this planet at this sport. He has a vision: him playing against the wall, in the finals of the Davis Cup, winning a gruelling match. Everything’s that happened since, has led to this moment. He was born to do this one specific thing. He was born to be great. He’s waited all his life for this moment, and if he doesn’t win this, he’ll hate himself all his life. He fires up, and much to the disbelief of the world, beats McEnroe, 8-6. He goes on his knees, his arms held out in front of himself: an image that has become as famous as the match itself.
The Ending credits tell us Borg went on to play the Wimbledon the next year as well, where he was defeated in the finals by McEnroe in four sets. Borg was active on the circuit until 1983, but only played a single tournament in the two years after the end of his 41 match run at SW19. The match not only changed the course of the careers of the two men, it also happened to change the course of tennis history itself. It was the first major Wimbledon Match between two stars who grew up playing in the Open Era. McEnroe, however, was the pinnacle of the early days of his era, for many writers are of the opinion that after the Wimbledon finals, he brought his game to a level where the Swede — or anyone else in the world — could match up to him: this was made all the more obvious in the US Open finals in 1980 and the 1981 Wimbledon finals.
McEnroe also ended up being a cultural icon: three years before the events of the film, he was signed by Phil Knight for his company Nike. Even though he was hated by the world, Knight loved him, and helped popularise McEnroe as a counterculture rebel, which was a novelty in its time, for the term ‘Cultural Icon’ was supposed to be reserved, at least in sport, to players like Borg, who were symbols of gentlemanly excellence and everything fine in the world. He was an image that the world wanted their next generation to learn and aspire to be.
After Wimbledon 1980, Borg had become a shell of a man: his concentration had been broken, and he still went on playing, and winning, but it seemed as if he were operating purely on muscle memory. He retired at the age of 26 in a time where players were active till the age of 40, which was a final statement to the mental trauma that he had been living through all his life. Because on some days, you wake up and find no strength to carry on doing what you’ve done all your life. Borg climbed to the top of the mountain, and yet found himself miserable, for the cost of getting to the mountain wasn’t worth it, and he had to give up. At least he didn’t end up like poor David Foster Wallace, who got tired of fighting a civilisation, and when he didn’t find it in himself, he ended up untethered from his own being and ended his own life. The same happened with Borg, but then the damage was recognised and controlled in time.
When Borg wins, there’s a ceremonial feast planned for him. Yet, he doesn’t attend it, and instead takes off with his fiancé, because he realises a simple thing: he doesn’t have to be the person he was anymore. He’s at the top of the mountain, and he doesn’t need to worry anymore. There was only one thing his life was building to, and the eve of the victory seems like a conclusion, and he walks off into the sunset with the woman he loved the most in the world. They married, but their marriage lasted only 4 years.
However, it’s the last sequence of the film that sets the tone of the world the film leaves us in. Borg sees McEnroe at the airport and goes up to talk to him. This happened to be the beginning of a life-long friendship and dozens of exhibition matches. These individuals, in the process of changing each other, became eternally linked. At the end of the day, they knew, they were supposed to do this forever.