Readers Write In #29: Borg-McEnroe movie explores the torment of obsessive perfectionism

Posted on December 15, 2017

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The new film on the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry (new in India, released a few months earlier abroad), named baldly after their last names, has received a somewhat mixed if overall positive reception.  The common complaint seems to be that the film devotes too much time to Borg and too little to McEnroe.  One review did reasonably observe that the real or, if you will, the off-court Borg is a story that the audience will find more astonishing…because it shows him to have been a volatile and angry kid and still prone to flying into fits of pure rage against those who, as his coach reminds him, are working hard to help him every step of the way.  It is also, in my opinion, interesting because it lifts the curtain and takes a look at the torment of perfectionism.

The film juxtaposes the Wimbledon defending champ Ice-Borg with the hot headed kid who is suspended but attracts the attention of his future coach with glimpses of unusual talent.  It shows the kid reaching a veritable dead end with his fury threatening to derail his quest to win (though it is this quest that in fact causes him to be angry when things don’t go his way). He is told by the coach to stop showing any emotion whatsoever if he wants to succeed and he obeys.  The rest is history.

What the film does not attempt to do is to tie Borg’s manic perfectionism and obsession with having things the exact way he needs them to be with his back story.  No, that exists independent of the boiling volcano that simmers but won’t explode. As Vitas Gerulaitis explains to McEnroe in the film, Borg stays in the same hotel, travels by the same car, has the same number of racquets strung the same way before the match and even has his parents wear the same colour of clothes for the matches as and when they do attend. But this doesn’t have to do with the kid that Borg is trying to hide from public gaze.  Alternatively, it could be said the kid is really a metaphor for Borg’s quest for perfection and his acute fear of failure.

For Borg screams at his long time coach for apparently not stringing the racquets the right way (a charge which the coach rejects).  Borg is upset when the All England Club allows noisy gawkers to watch his private practice sessions.  He observes tellingly that nobody will talk about his four successive Wimbledons if he fails to win this fifth one, reflecting the burden of expectations felt by him.  But which is only partly imposed by the world at large.  It is also a burden he has willfully inflicted on himself and yet it torments him to the point of pushing him to tears.

We see that to become Ice-Borg for the cameras, Borg needs to sometimes even puke before the match to cope with the pressure. In another short but beautiful passage, Borg is faring badly in an early round match when the infamous English weather grants him a reprieve.  As he waits for play to resume, Borg, King of Wimbledon, tells his coach he can’t do this and can he not tell the organisers to push the match to the next day.  Can you imagine…the top dog of tennis running away from playing somebody way down the pecking door?

Because (though the film is too sensitively crafted to state this plainly) Borg is now playing himself, fighting to match up to his own self image every day.  It is understandably exhausting and when he lost back to back slam finals to McEnroe at Wimbledon and US Open in 1981, Borg did in essence run away from the sport, retiring at a shockingly young age (26) for a healthy athlete.

Know what that’s similar to?  Barbra Streisand eschewing live performances for a long time because she forgot the lyrics for part of one song in a long concert she gave at Central Park, New York in 1968.  Which is just one rather well known example and in catching up with the backstories of many big rock bands (the ones that filled arenas) on TeamRock website, I found many singers/ musicians resorted to drugs/alcohol to relieve the anxiety and handle the pressure of performing so many shows (when they were selling well, they typically got overbooked by promoters) and having to live up to expectations every time.  Even television journalist Elizabeth Vargas admitted to relying on alcohol to handle the fear of having a meltdown on TV, a habit which eventually made her an alcoholic.

What’s common between Borg, Streisand and Vargas?  They all had to perform in front of millions of prying eyes and had to develop coping mechanisms to stop their perfectionism from paralysing them.   By the by, in the early scenes of the film, we see noisy hordes of fans innocently and overenthusiastically hounding Borg as he travels through France in a car…from the perspective of Borg seated in the car.  In an instant, the celebrity life suddenly looks far less inviting and from that moment on, we sympathise with hot favourite Borg rather than underdog McEnroe.

It is not often that so much insight into what a mega entertainer (which Borg was, and arguably the first such in tennis) goes through is revealed within a running length of less than 2 hours, rarer still that it’s depicted through vignettes rather than talky exposition. Perhaps, all of this makes the film too subtle, too, if I may, European for those expecting it to deliver the adrenaline rush of sporting action.  But there’s plenty of footage of the actual Borg-McEnroe easily available on youtube for that.  This film attempts to go behind Centre Court and unmask Borgman, only to reveal a lonely athlete for whom happiness is far more elusive than sporting success.

– Madan Mohan, recreational tennis hack in the early morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night

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