Director Janus Metz and Shia LaBeouf on bringing one of history’s great sporting rivalries to the screen in Borg vs McEnroe.

Every major sport has its beloved movies. Soccer, football, baseball, basketball, boxing – Bend it Like Beckham, Bill Durham, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, Remember the Titans and Hoop Dreams. Take your pick. But tennis? One of the most popular sports in the world. Name that film? Only Wimbledon and Match Point really come to mind, and neither prompt the same sense of affection as any one of the aforementioned films.

If tennis has found it tough to crack the movie racket over the years then, making up for lost time, three tennis movies made their ballsy debut at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Coincidentally, each film tackles a different era of the sport. Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as 12-time Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King in her takedown of chauvinist challenger Bobby Riggs, reflects on the early 70s, while Jason Kohn‘s made-for-television documentary Love Means Zero is set in the early ‘90s and centred around famed coach Nick Bollettieri and his protégés Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Sandwiched between is Janus Metz’s festival-opener Borg vs McEnroe, chronicling the events and personalities surrounding the famous 1980 Wimbledon final between the titular tennis icons.

 “McEnroe is like Mozart. So I watched Amadeus a lot”

When Shia LaBeouf, portraying the short-tempered American famous for yelling ‘You cannot be serious’ walked the red carpet with his Björn Borg lookalike co-star, Sverrir Gudnason, they were both greeted with sportingly enthusiastic applause.

Talking with STACK later, director Metz explains how he envisioned a film beyond a stuffy biopic. “It had to be more than a tennis movie, it had to be about something universal that transcends the sport. When I read Ronnie Sandahl’s script, I really thought it was a beautiful story containing existential questions about how individuals drive themselves to the edge and beyond.

“It didn’t make sense to make a tennis movie or a sports movie, because it’s never about the sport, it’s never about the tennis, it’s always about the characters,” he continues. “But, if you have an interesting story that asks some questions that you want to talk about, and drives that character throughout it, then, to me, I believe Borg vs McEnroe is essentially a psychological thriller.”

Nevertheless, the filmmaker thrust his two stars through vigorous boot camp for six months before filming. “If you’re making a film about the best tennis players in the world, then the tennis itself has to work too,” he says.

LaBeouf was initially no big fan of McEnroe. “It wasn’t necessarily the McEnroe role that I was first attracted to. I was a fan of Metz’s first film, Armadillo, and then I heard he was doing a tennis movie and I thought, ‘What the f–k? It doesn’t make any sense.’ And then I read the script, and it moved me. Ronnie’s script was like poetry,” he says, likening the story to Amadeus.

“McEnroe is like Mozart. So I watched Amadeus a lot. I don’t even think he was asking himself these questions while he was playing. I don’t think he was really searching, I just think he was trying to win. So only after he got off the tour did he start asking these questions about who he was.”

“I think he [McEnroe] is a tactician. I think he really added something more to the game”

LaBeouf doesn’t necessarily agree with the commonly accepted images of Borg as the “Ice Borg” and McEnroe as volcanic. “I think it’s more complicated than that. I think he [McEnroe] is a tactician. I think he really added something more to the game. When he entered the game, it was a power sport, and Borg was the king of that, but McEnroe brought a touch and sensitivity to the game that wasn’t there before. He used rage as a tactic to throw people off, and he manufactured his intensity to hype himself up. In that way, he’s an artist. It was hard to explain that tactical position in tennis at the time because the narrative was cartoons, like bad guy versus good guy, so it really wasn’t a forum for him to express that truth.”

Certainly LaBeouf found an empathy with McEnroe – each branded with a bad boy image; complicated men labelled as misunderstood.

“I think he’s hyper-aware of his legacy; he’s written two biographies and recorded an audiobook. He’s very aware of the perception of him and I think he’s turned into quite a sweet man. He’s kind of the Bad Santa of tennis. Nothing but respect and love to him.”

Borg vs McEnroe is in cinemas November 16

Game, Set & Match  

Tennis has served as a backdrop to many films, some ace, some bad.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1954)

When gifted tennis star meets a boy, love blooms and they begin to court. However, an ambitious mother determined to guide her career to success puts the relationship on course for an inevitable confrontation.

Wimbledon (2004)

When a fading wealthy British tennis star in his 30s receives a wildcard entry to Wimbledon, he’s convinced he’s too old. However, that’s until he falls in love with an American rising star and suddenly his game falls into place.

Match Point (2005)

Match Point was a return to form for director Woody Allen. An ambitious young tennis coach attempts to break in to British High Society. There are oodles of deception and questions of morality in this gripping thriller.

Break Point (2014)

A washed up semi-pro wants to give it one last go but struggles to find a suitable partner in this lukewarm comedy. Finally, his brother, ditched 15 years ago, comes back into the picture and the rebuilding process begins. Yawn.