It’s the summer of 1980 and Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is the top tennis player in the world, dominating the sport both on and off the court. A powerful and rigorously disciplined player, there is only one obstacle in his pursuit of a record-breaking fifth Wimbledon championship: the highly talented but ferociously abrasive young American, John McEnroe (a perfectly cast Shia LaBeouf).
With three days until the tournament begins, Borg trains religiously in his lavish Monaco home, aided by his coach and mentor Lennart (Stellan Skarsgård) and girlfriend Mariana (Tuva Novotny). But McEnroe's explosive confidence and wrecking-ball persona continue to infiltrate Borg's ice-cool and normally unshakable temperament. With each man the antithesis of the other, both players delve into their formative memories as the climactic tournament draws near and anticipation reaches fever pitch.
Visceral and breathlessly tense, the match itself - regarded as one of the greatest of all time - would mark the pinnacle of the ‘Fire and Ice’ rivalry between Borg and McEnroe; an exhilarating battle of personalities that set the world of tennis alight.
To me, Borg vs McEnroe is the tennis version of Raging Bull. It is about two young men fighting to be the best in order to prove themselves, in order to have importance, to be someone or somebody. Locked in a rivalry against each other – one of the greatest in the history of sports – they are ultimately playing against themselves and their own demons.
Björn and John both had the special ability to drive themselves to the edge and beyond. I think this characterises most great achievers. And although the world saw them as perfect opposites, they had this one particular thing in common – and they recognised that in each other. They both played tennis as if their lives depended on it and as the story unfolds we see how these two loners ultimately find understanding and friendship in each other.
Exploring the inner turmoil of both Björn and John, the film deploys visceral cinematography with lots of handheld and steady-cam stressing a sense of immediate presence and realism. And then, this is juxtaposed with iconic establishers creating rich atmospheric and sometimes even symbolic imagery, driving at theme and historical importance. The film is about a clash of titans and that calls for scale. We place the viewer in Björn and John’s shoes, but we also step back from this saturated and sometimes claustrophobic space into large-scale images that stress the grandness of the match and the existential dimension of the story.
As a biopic inspired by the real events of Björn and John’s lives and particularly their legendary 1980 Wimbledon final, Borg vs McEnroe re-invokes an era in sports where tennis players were “rock stars” and where John and Björn stood out probably as the two biggest icons. Although I was only a kid in 1980 myself, I remember this era in tennis very clearly. In my family, we were all waiting for the 1980 Wimbledon final as if it were a holy sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve. I probably only saw a guy with a funny hairdo moaning and groaning on one side of the net and another guy throwing crazy temper tantrums on the other, but there was still an air of sanctity about it that I remember to this day. Now I see that it was all about the way these two players were being pitted against each other.
This was not just two men playing tennis. This was two continents clashing. Two completely opposite attitudes and tempers facing off against each other. Two completely different ways of being human. Borg vs McEnroe captures this beautifully.
Sverrir Gudnason: Björn Borg
Shia LaBeouf: John McEnroe
Stellan Skarsgård: Lennart "Labbe" Bergelin
Tuva Novotny: Mariana Simionescu
Ian Blackman: John McEnroe Sr
Robert Emms: Vitas Gerulaitis
Janus Metz: Director
Ronnie Sandahl: Screenplay
Jon Nohrstedt: Producer
Fredrik Wikström Nicastro: Producer #2
Niels Thastum: Director of Photography
Lina Nordqvist: Production Design
Production year: 2017
SF Studios Production in co-production with Film i Väst, Sveriges Television, Nordisk Film, Yellow Film & TV, SF Studios Production A/S and Sirena Film, with production support from the Swedish Film Institute (Yaba Holst & Margareta Jangard), Nordic Film & TV Fond, the Danish Film Institute, the Finnish Film Foundation, DR, YLE and development support from MEDIA