There’s one big problem with tennis movies: the actual playing of the tennis.
Ask any tennis player: you could play for 30 years and still not look like a world No. 1 – even in practice.
In the case of the Borg v. McEnroe movie, which began shooting a few weeks ago, it’s going to be a particularly tricky issue as both Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe have such distinctive playing styles that no amount of headbands or tighty-whitey 80s shorts will make up for it.
It’s not like football or hockey where you can put out a stunt double in a helmet and pads and fake it.
“It’s difficult even for tennis players to re-enact what they did. So how in the hell is an actor going to do it on a court? It looks fake. They look like actors who can’t play,” McEnroe told Vanity Fair last week. “You see these guys, they go out there and they barely even know how to play tennis. Hopefully they’re focusing on stuff off the court. Unless they intertwine it (with) real footage. Then it would be cool, maybe.”
Neither Shia Labeouf, the 29-year-old who will portray the Superbrat nor Sverrir Gudnason, the 37-year-old Swede who will embody Borg, had ever played tennis before the movie.
And Labeouf, needless to say, is a righty, not a lefty like McEnroe.
— Andy Inwards (@ndyinwards) September 16, 2016
Oopsie. He also looks way too old; McEnroe was a baleful lad of 23 with a baby face back in those days. They were looking high and low for Borg-alike kids to play him at a young age earlier this spring. From the pics we've seen of Gudnason, there isn't enough trademark scruff nor enough upper-body heft for a realistic simulation.
Labeouf’s tabloid-friendly off-court escapades might make him relate to McEnroe; he has said as much. We’ll see if he can get the Queen’s accent down.
Some of the other casting has potential.
Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard as Borg’s Svengali-like coach Lennart Bergelin.
British actor Robert Emms as Vitas Gerulaitis (this one is inspired).
Another British actor, Tom Datnow, will try his hand at being Jimmy Connors.
Hmmm… Not sure about that one, although Connors will surely be pleased.
Borg and McEnroe could still produce a reasonable facsimile of their younger selves on the court, which might pass with a little movie magic. But that’s not happening.
But the fact that the actually tennis playing might be laughable isn’t the only issue McEnroe has with the film, due out next year.
His biggest issue is that they don’t care what he thinks – about anything.
“I don’t know if they are planning on doing the whole movie without input or any type of arrangement from me or Bjorn,” McEnroe told Vanity Fair. “I haven’t seen anything, and they’ve already started the movie.”
In other words:
For whatever reason, after a long drought, this will be the second tennis-themed movie to come out in 2017 along with the reincarnation of the 1973 Battle of the Sexes with Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, already in post-production.
But unlike the Borg-McEnroe flick, which is an ambitious Swedish project, “Battle of the Sexes” is a full-on Hollywood deal starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. (The story was already done 15 years ago as a TV movie, with Holly Hunter and Ron Silver playing the parts)
At first glance, this is a righteous imitation. And unlike Borg v McEnroe, the actors are almost exactly the same age as the real-life people they’re portraying were back in 1973.
Most of the previous attempts at tennis movies have not been biographical, which makes the casting easier but somehow hasn’t really made the movies better.
Most recently, "Wimbledon".
This 2004 romantic comedy starred Kirsten Dunst, who plays a rising (presumably teenaged) star on the women’s tour whose mere presence inspires an over-the-hill Paul Bettany (whose family is loaded) to end his career doldrums and rule the All-England Club once again. Originally, it was supposed to star Reese Witherspoon. On the plus side – unlike the Borg-McEnroe movie, it appears, which is currently filming in Prague – they did film some of it at the actual venue.
Yeah, it was pretty terrible, and it cost twice as much to make as it originally earned at the box office. In that film, they had the actors shadow swing and added the ball in digitally afterwards (McEnroe shows off his acting skills in that one playing a … Wimbledon tennis commentator. Major stretch).
The worst? You have to go back to 1979.
“Players” starred Dean Paul Martin, son of crooner Dean. On the plus side, he could actually play – very well – and was a stone-cold hottie. Plus, there were cameo appearances by many of the top players of the day including McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, John Lloyd, Ilie Nastase and Vijay Amritraj.
They faked a pretty good Wimbledon, and the character Martin plays actually faces the real Vilas in the pivotal match.
On the down side – a major downside – Martin couldn’t act his way out of a ball hopper. And Ali MacGraw, who played the older-woman love interest, made him look like an Oscar contender. And the script was awful.
In the end – unless the script is brilliant and the acting performances unreal, Borg v. McEnroe will be all about whether they can fake a good game on the court – not talk a good one off the court. Tennis players and fans are real picky about this sort of thing.
The real Johnny Mac may well prove to be a prophet. They should have coughed up some cash.