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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Diff 2017: Two of tennis’s greatest stars inspired new film ‘Borg McEnroe’

The film is set during the 1980 Wimbledon Championships where Swede Bjorn Borg was aiming to become the first man at the All England Lawn Tennis Club to claim five men’s titles in a row

Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Courtesy Diff
Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason as John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Courtesy Diff

I think when you have won everything and are a living legend, the idea of losing is frightening because you are going to be dethroned and you are basically going to have to be at ease with a new identity,” says Janus Metz, director of Borg McEnroe, which is set during the 1980 Wimbledon Championships, when Swede Bjorn Borg was aiming to become the first man at the All England Lawn Tennis Club to claim five men’s titles in a row.

At the time, Borg was the No 1 en’s tennis player in the world and one of the most famous people on the planet. He had the reputation of being emotionless – cool both on and off the court. His long blond hair, headband and fashionable clothing ensured that he was also a sex symbol, the epitome of Swedish style.

On the other side of the net was brash young American upstart John McEnroe, as famous for his temper tantrums and wild emotions as he was for his left-handed forehand. Their differing temperaments and styles is why one of the great rivalries in sporting history has come to be coined as Ice versus Fire.

The film starts with Borg in a moment of existential crisis. “His life was orchestrated around the fact that he was the best player in the world and that he had to keep that position and that came to be a prison for him,” Metz says.

“What we see at the beginning of the movie is a guy who is – I wouldn’t say he is suicidal – but there is an element of a death wish. He was someone who just wished that he could escape being himself and be an ordinary guy. I think that dilemma is true for most celebrities, consciously or subconsciously, and that is true of a lot of artist and Borg was an artist. There is some kind of demon snapping at your feet that prevents you from reconciling with living an ordinary life.”

Icelandic-born actor Sverrir Gudnason, who plays Borg, has an uncanny resemblance to the Swede. To prepare for the role, he had intensive tennis lessons. “I played in a tennis club and I switched to using a wooden Borg Donnay racket that was strung tight and played with that for six months. I think Borg is kind of a riddle, and to get into his mind I had to find a way to make people interested in what he was thinking. I watched a lot of his old games – that’s when he was in his natural element. I looked at how he walked and talked, his postures.”

Playing McEnroe is Hollywood’s own enfant terrible Shia LaBeouf, the former Transformers star who these days spends more time turning his own life into performance art than he does acting. His shenanigans have made him as much a pariah in the film world as McEnroe was on court. “Shia was the first and obvious choice to play the part,” Metz says. “He had seen my previous film Armadillo as part of his preparation for a film called Fury, so when he got my script and saw my name attached, he got on the phone immediately and we talked about this great opportunity and that he has similar experiences to McEnroe of feeling misunderstood by the media and having a lot of controversy around his personality.”

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Read more from Diff 2017:

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A Ciambra tells the untold stories of daily lives in Mafia country

Gallows humour fuels Christmas spirit in Nazareth-based comedy Wajib

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Metz met with Borg, because Borg’s son, Lee Borg Young, plays the young version of Borg between the ages of 9 and 13. In flashbacks, Borg is shown to have been quite the enfant terrible himself in his youth, throwing tantrums and being banned from playing. It was only when he met his coach Lennart Bergelin, played by Stellan Skarsgard, that Borg started to keep his emotions in check. McEnroe and Metz never met, and the American tennis star has complained that scenes in which he is depicted unfavourably have been made up, when if they had spoken to him, he could have given them many more stories to make himself look even worse.

“We tried to meet McEnroe many times,” Metz says. “I think he’s been in movies before and he’s not happy with those movies. It’s also a money issue and how much do we have to offer. We are talking about a guy who is very concerned about his legacy.”

But as far as their legacy is concerned, this film simply adds to their statuses as sporting legends.

Borg McEnroe screens December 11 at 3.45pm at Vox 17, Mall of the Emirates