Borg vs. McEnroe: Great Film, Great Story

“You cannot be serious!” — John McEnroe

When I think of tennis a number of images readily come to mind. Perhaps first of these was Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, in which a celebrated tennis player crosses paths on a train with a charming psychopath. They chit chat a bit and the fellow apparently knows a lot about the tennis star who is regularly in the news. The story quickly turns very dark.

The 1951 thriller shows how great tennis players have always been celebrities. This is not just a recent phenomenon.

Next I thought of David Foster Wallace’s account of tennis star Roger Federer, a masterful piece of writing, literally taking one’s breath away.

As I watched Borg vs. McEnroe, two additional memories rose to the surface. The first was a book I’d downloaded to my first Kindle about Bjorn Borg. Chapter one detailed the rituals he would go through getting ready for a match, and the tremendous pummeling his body would take as a premiere tennis pro.

A John McEnroe memory accompanied this one, an anecdote from Tatum O’Neal’s heartbreaking autobiographical Hollywood tell-all, A Paper Life. At age 10 she became the youngest actor to win an Oscar for her role in Paper Moon. Her celebrity opened the door for more roles and opportunities. Her screwed up upbringing contributed to her not handling success very well.

When John McEnroe became her main squeeze for a spell, coke was the real thing in the mover and shaker scene. According to her book McEnroe had a cache of some great stuff which he kept in a safe. After he went off to a major tournament one week she found a way to break into that safe and empty its contents, up her nose.

This film is not about my memories. It’s about one of the great matches in tennis history, the 1980 Wimbledon.

The story is told wonderfully, with flashbacks into the childhood development of each player’s character qualities. If you only half follow the sport you will remember John McEnroe as an emotional, verbally foul-mouthed player who was consistently disrespectful toward line umpires.

Going into the 1980 Wimbledon Borg had been the sport’s most dominant player, having won the four previous events. Could he make it five in a row? This was the film’s setup.

In the first set John McEnroe, with his sizzling serves, appears to be totally dominant as Borg appears sluggish and out-matched. Even though he’s made the final, is he showing himself to be over-the-hill?

There’s another interesting piece of the story. In this 1980 championship match McEnroe is playing serious tennis, focused on his game, and not assaulting the refs with F-bombs.

The relationships with their managers, fans, loved ones, families, and past history are all explored, but not tediously labored over. The film’s pace is steady and ever moving forward because it’s about the game. Can Borg put it all together again and overcome this massively determined upstart?

I have two choices at this point. Write the words “spoiler alert” and give away the ending, or simply encourage you to find this film and enjoy it.

I’m preferring here to do the latter.

Bonus Tracks

Two very different tennis-themed films that I enjoyed:

Battle of the Sexes (2017) The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell)

Match Point (2005) A tennis player marries into a wealthy family. It’s a serious Woody Allen film dealing with themes of morality, greed, and the roles of lust, money, and luck in life.

For a page of fun and insightful insider details about the film, visit the Borg vs. McEnroe Wikipedia page.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store