You Cannot Be Serious
Has there ever been a good film about tennis?
John McEnroe thinks not.
The trouble with films about tennis is that most actors just can’t play the game.
“Players” and “Wimbledon” were both murdered by hopeless attempts to look like proper players. McEnroe had a walk-on part in “Players” and regretted it, saying that tennis films were always terrible.
And that’s what’s extraordinary about this one. Not only can the protagonists play, they manage to imitate every minute mannerism; McEnroe’s (Shia Laboeuf) distinctive back-bending leftie serve, the endless twitching, his disdainful treatment of the volley, leaning backwards, racket high and flat. He even spits like McEnroe.
They do use body doubles, especially in that blurred and frantic match at the end, but the scenes where the actors were playing were really convincing.
It’s just a shame that Laboeuf doesn’t remotely look like Johnny Mac, but then how do you find a Mac-lookalike leftie American who can act, and play tennis like him. Four out of five isn’t bad.
As for Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), the resemblance is almost creepy. It’s in the eyes mostly, close-set and a bit zombie-like, but also in his gait, the Fila gear, the shaggy hair. If you look at a photo of the actor next to one of Borg himself, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. And their tennis also looks almost identical; the first of the double-handed backhands but with the left hand releasing early, a move learned from ice-hockey, at which Borg also excelled. The real Borg’s legs were a lot more muscular but maybe I’m being a bit picky.
So, their styles are impressive but the movements are clumsy. Of course, it’s asking a bit much of 31-year-old Laboeuf to dart around like a 21-year-old, McEnroe’s age at the time the film is set.
The young Borg is played by Borg’s son, Leo, who recently won the under 14’s Swedish Open. So he knows how to play and, naturally, he looks like his dad. Good casting there.
Of course, McEnroe hated the film. He said it made him look like a “jerk” which seems a bit odd because he was a “jerk” wasn’t he?
But he was also annoyed because he wasn’t consulted, which does seem rather insulting and a bit stupid really, because his insight would have been helpful.
The problem is, though, that the film just lacks substance. It’s flat and far too long. There’s a lot of staring into space in locker rooms, challenging us to work out what’s going on in the players’ brains. Nor does Lennart “Labbe” Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), Borg’s fatherly coach, really come to life.
And there are few memorable lines apart from the predictable “you cannot be serious” and “chalk flew up”, although Laboeuf does do the tantrums brilliantly and clearly relishes the part.
However, I kept thinking “come on, let’s get to that tie-break” which is what I assumed the film was about, and that takes over an excruciatingly-long hour to happen, during which time I nearly fell asleep.
Yes, “that tie-break” in the fourth set of the extraordinary 1980 Wimbledon final.
And this is where the film is a bit daft. Why didn’t they use real footage, which would have really demonstrated the incredible tension of the match? I wanted to see some of the actual thing, not a rather clumsy contest between the actors intercut with a bit of real stuff, which makes the whole thing totally confusing and unrealistic.
And then, at the end of that match, the film just stops. In the end credits, we are told that the American beat the Swede at the following year’s Wimbledon, at which point Borg retired.
On that last point, there is a rather touching moment in the film when Borg’s girlfriend Mariana Simionescu (Tuva Novotny) asks him what he would do if he decided to retire from tennis. He shakes his head, at a loss for an answer. It’s that age-old problem for top athletes, used to the limelight in big stadiums, endorsements, money, and in Borg’s case, the George Best of tennis, girls throwing themselves at him.
When Borg did retire at the age of 26 he went off the rails, hitting the booze, the girls and the nightclubs and investing in a series of disastrous business ventures, finally forced to flog off his trophies and rackets to avoid bankruptcy.
Now that would have been a good story.
The main problem is that the film centres around the build-up to a match where we already know the result. So where’s the excitement in that?