In 1980 there was one tennis match that seemed to mark a change, a transformation pointing the way to the future of the sport as we know it today thanks to a major rivalry that summed up the new challenges it faced. The competitors were Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), and the former had reached the world number one position, while the latter was snapping at his heels as the world number two. The public were thrilled: both were big news wherever they played, and when they were pitted against one another it was front page headline material across the globe, but what they did not know was behind their personas lay a great deal of doubt and anguish...
Yes, it was time to feel sorry for sporting millionaires again with a Scandinavian movie that took the template of the Formula One blockbuster Rush and applied it to the "gentlemen's game" of tennis, though McEnroe was making a name for himself as anything but a gentleman at the time, what with his antics on the court exhibiting his infamously short temper. Meanwhile, Borg was "the red-hot Swede with the ice water in his veins", a stark contrast to his rival as he never displayed any emotion while playing, the equivalent of the machine which relentlessly fired back balls he trained against on the practice courts. Certainly this was the perception of them, stoked up by the press.
By 1980, Borg had won Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tournament, four times in a row and was aiming for a record fifth, but McEnroe planned to throw a spanner in the works of that ambition. Even from a modern perspective, it is difficult to judge who was best, particularly as they won an equal number of matches against one another when they were professionals at the top of their game, and this film did not appear to be too interested in answering that question, though it was clear they were playing favourites. This was a Scandinavian movie, and their hearts were with their man from the same region of the world as they were, so McEnroe was essentially the villain.
To underline that, they hired an actor known for his bratty behaviour in real life, LaBeouf, and made a virtue of the baggage he would bring to his roles; the star obviously was keen to seize this opportunity and turned up McEnroe's antagonism to extreme degrees. He didn't turn to violence, exactly, all the beating up he did was psychological in the context of the matches, but the film exaggerated his bad boy behaviour by having him turn the air blue with swear words, something he did not do on the court in real life, as he would have been fined or even marched off. It was aspects such as that which had you wondering how accurate the rest of it was in its details, and the actual John McEnroe made no secret of his dissatisfaction with how he was portrayed.
Borg had no such qualms, even to the point of allowing his son to be cast as his boy self, and as such he was thanked in the credits while his counterpart received no such acknowledgement, tellingly. In the twenty-first century, looking back on the volatile McEnroe and the enigmatic Borg may seem like tennis from another planet, when the top players make a great deal of effort to present an admirable persona as role models. Greatest ever, Roger Federer is well known as a nice guy on and off the court, Pete Sampras never saw any undue controversy, even Andy Murray, never exactly a ray of sunshine, is very conscious of fair play while bad boys like Nick Kyrgios are made to feel unwelcome and looked down on. Here we were led to believe that's how McEnroe was treated, but he had plenty of fans who relished his outbursts just as there were those who loved Borg for never letting anyone in to his self-doubt; one supposed you did not watch sporting biopics for complete accuracy after all. As it stood, this was a fair depiction of one of the most exciting tennis matches of all time - though you would have to watch the real thing to genuinely feel that excitement.