Film Geoff Dyer on two new movies about legendary tennis matches
Two films about infamous tennis matches go head to head this autumn, with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe. Geoff Dyer plays umpire…
Tennis addicts can rest easy – in the sense of staying up all night to watch tennis. Somewhere in the world an important tournament is under way and on subscription TV. The less seriously committed are faced with the long inter-slam drought between the US and Australian Opens. Fortunately palliatives are at hand in the form of two movies, Battle of the Sexes and
Borg vs McEnroe . The first film is about the 1973 match between Billie Jean King and the selfproclaimed male chauvinist pig and former world No 1 Bobby Riggs; the second focuses on the 1980 Wimbledon final. They are linked by the way that in 2000 Donald Trump offered John McEnroe a million dollars to play either of the Williams sisters at one of his hotels. As McEnroe recounted in his 2002 autobiography Serious, the sisters’ claim that “they could beat ranked male players” prompted him to respond that “any respectable male player, be it a top college competitor, a senior player, or a professional, could beat them”. Trump stumped up the money but the Williamses “came to their senses and put out a statement that they didn’t want to play against ‘an old man’”.
That was the end of that until this summer when McEnroe published a sequel, But Seriously – a book even well- disposed critics had trouble taking seriously – and, possibly as a controversy-provoking way to nudge it up the rankings, ventured the opinion that Serena would be ranked around 700 on the men’s tour. She volleyed back that he should respect her privacy – at about the time that she had appeared naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair. History has a way of repeating itself, first as farce and then as farce.
The difference is that the first time around, when 29-year-old King played the 55-year-old Riggs, it was precisely the farcical nature of the encounter that made it so serious. Riggs, as King understood, was a clown and a hustler, and the more ridiculous his antics the more demeaning it would be if she lost. Especially since he had already beaten Margaret Court who, exactly as predicted, wilted under the pressure of the occasion. So while Riggs did everything he could to publicise the forthcoming bout, King trained for it.
Since all of this – build-up, match and aftermath – was filmed, recut and retold in an excellent recent documentary, the question is whether there was any need to re-enact the story in a biopic. Perhaps the fact that there was no need freed the filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to come up with a striking piece of cinema in a way that the similarly superfluous Selma never managed.
Emma Stone is wonderful as Billie Jean and Steve Carell’s Riggs is a far more nuanced – and tormented – character than the cartoon sexist he gleefully set himself up to be. As BJK realises, Riggs is both a colourful manifestation of and an energetic distraction from the blazered patriarchy at work behind the scenes. More subtly, camerawork and design do not just capture the colours and textures of the early 1970s – how can one not adore the sun-swept, traffic-lesstraffic- freeways of California? – but also a broader sense of historichistA convergence.
An altogether less dramatic momentmom in the vexed history of the sexes occurs in Rebecca West’s immense book about Yugoslavia,Yugosl Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The author is in a restaurantre in Pristina in the 1930s,19 when a man and a womanw enter, the woman carrying “the better part of a plough on her back”. The sight of “unrestricted masculinism” of this kind is “disgusting” to West, less because of the effect on women “who are always taught something by the work they do, but because of the nullification of the men”. In a hectic schedule of publicising matches, flogging tickets, looking pretty and playing tennis with each other – plus, in BJK’s case, having her first lesbian love affair – the rebellious women on the tour are seen having a high old time. With the exception of Billie Jean’s devoted dude of a husband – the most poignant scenes in the film show him taping ice to her aching knees – and the gay costumiers on the women’s nascent tour, the men remain imprisoned by what they unthinkingly thought they were preserving.
If anything the fact that the result was so clear-cut – Riggs got his ass royally kicked in straight sets – makes the waters seem less turbulent than they were. Contrast the well-orchestrated hoopla of the match in Houston with a debate on feminism in New York two years earlier, as preserved in the documentary Town
Bloody Hall . Holding the fort in the name of… well, himself really, Norman Mailer struggles manfully to fend off a gang of marauding brainy women including Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. It’s all just talk but the anarchic swirl and passion of the event make the Houston contest seem as decorous as a mixed- doubles match at Wimbledon. In Battle of the Sexes, Stone/King recalls how, as a little girl, she was excluded from a team photograph because she was wearing shorts. At that moment she decided to take up her racket-cudgel on behalf of womankind. This stand casts her as an infant Jeanne d’Arc, predestined for saintly and bespectacled greatness. That, I suppose, is part of the attraction of politically symbolic sporting events such as Jack Johnson v James J Jeffries or Jesse Owens v the Nazis in Berlin in 1936. They make everything simple, while life proves stubbornly resistant to resolution by knockout or tie-break.
Still, better King v Riggs than Borg v McEnroe which seems entirely – and for a tennis film fatally – pointless. The outcome of the match is known in advance and nothing except that result is at stake – unless you buy into the idea that somehow McEnroe, “the kid from Queens”, as the lawyer’s son never tires of describing himself, was somehow trying to bring down the English ruling elite as symbolised by the lawns of SW19 and the umpires who were their myopic custodians. The film retains vestiges of interest, only if one attends to everything except its titular match-up.
Waiting to come on court for the final, Björn and John sit on a bench beneath the famous lines from Kipling: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same…” It’s as if the audience’s doubts have been projected on screen! The film is really a Best Impostor contest, but it’s impossible to
treat the contestants in the same way. Sverrir Gudnason looks so like Borg it makes one conscious of how unlike McEnroe Shia LaBeouf looks. Methodwise, LaBeouf would seem to have had the advantage in that he has acted like a jerk in real life, and McEnroe’s inner life has been demonstrably and repeatedly expressed on court and off. With McEnroe forever acting up – contractually obliged, it seems, to reprise the role of his tantrum-prone younger self even on the senior circuit – LaBeouf is left with little to do except
While LaBeouf plays superbrat, Gudnason wanders around as if marooned in an Ingmar Berman film
brood on how his hair looks more like Bob Dylan’s than Johnny Mac’s. Borg, meanwhile, remains a mystery.
McEnroe/LaBeouf suspects that the reason his opponent sleeps in a hotel room with the AC turned up to arctic frigidity is not that he’s an ice-borg; he’s really a volcano about to erupt. We know this is true because of the scenes from Borg’s adolescence where he seems to be getting in character for the racket-smashing role of foreveryoung McEnroe/Dylan. His trainer persuades him to harness those tears of rage and express them solely through forehands and backhands.
Where, to rephrase Eric Liddell’s moving speech in Chariots of Fire, does the rage come from? Partly because he’s been told tennis is not for certain classes of person. More generally from some non-specific Scandinavian malaise: an all-court rumble of Hamlet, Kierkegaard, Ibsen and Strindberg, barely held in check by a sweaty headband. (Or could it be caused by the headband?) So while LaBeouf is playing superbrat in a tennis flick, Gudnason wanders around as if marooned in an Ingmar Bergman film directed neither by Bergman nor his acolyte Woody Allen but by Janus Metz. “What’s going on in that head of yours?” people keep asking. No one knows and nothing in the script rivals the way the question was framed by the poet William Scammell when he wondered whether it was “chess against a breaking wave / or just some corny Abba tune”.
Which leaves us, as always, with the tennis. In this regard the critical heart of the matter was articulated years ago by my dad. I was watching a Woody Allen film on TV, a sequence in which Allen’s character plays squash. My dad had no idea who Allen was but after watching for a few minutes said, “The li’l un’s not up to much is he!” It’s as simple as that. Can the tennis players in these films play tennis? Yes they can. I assume that this is a product of technology whereby the heads of the actors can be grafted on to the bodies of their doubles. But the issue is not only whether they can play tennis well enough. They have also to be able to play oldly enough. Compared with today, tennis of the 1970s looks a leisurely, almost sub-aqua affair, but any difference in overall is also a technologically induced illusion. Only pole-vaulting has been as thoroughly reconfigured by advances in equipment as tennis.
Stone’s last big hit, negotiated a similar problem. Can she and Ryan Gosling dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? No they can’t. The solution is to let the camera do the dancing. In the battle to replicate the actual tennis,
of the Sexes is more effective than Borg vs McEnroe for exactly the opposite reason. Whereas in the latter the camera is down there on court, moving in close and scampering after the ball, the former opts for viewing the match as though on TV: a reminder that although as a tennis match it was pretty silly, it was the spectacle – seeing Riggs make a spectacle of himself in front of a television audience of 90 million – that mattered. Aesthetically it also takes us back to the 1970s when cameras were not able to immerse us in every-angle HD closeups of the shifting narrative increments of a match.
Ironies abound. The celebration of women’s tennis being taken seriously comes at a time when women’s tennis is in danger of becoming seriously boring, as endless players from eastern Europe and beyond – “all these new -ovas”, as Venus Williams wittily put it – thump the ball into the middle of the second week. There have been quite a few one-sided semis and finals in recent years but the close-fought conclusion to this year’s tournament at Indian Wells between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Vesnina was a prolonged exercise in endurance – for anyone watching. The problem is not a lack of personalities; it is the surfeit of women whose games are all but indistinguishable from each other. Qualities traditionally identified as feminine – grace, delicacy and beauty – have become the exclusive preserve of the men’s game. (The dudes even cry more than the chicks!) I say “preserve” because those qualities have long been endangered in the men’s game too. Watching John Isner, Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey remains one of the less edifying sporting experiences available. We have become used to dads like Mike Agassi and Richard Williams pushing their kids to become players from infancy. The next move might well be to breed monstrously tall, bigservers in a laboratory. In spite of this, the men’s game is presently more pleasing to the eye than the women’s. This was not always the case. Mischa Zverev is lauded as a throwback to the serve-and-volley heyday of Wimbledon – but hey, that day often comprised serve minus volley. To go from Ivan Lendl plying his joyless trade to watching Steffi Graf play was like seeing the covers coming off after a rain delay had somehow assumed human form. And then – to cut a long story short – along came Roger Federer, who was blessed with power, subtlety and grace. David Foster Wallace famously described Federer as “Mozart and Metallica at the same time”.
Women’s matches these days often resemble a mashup between Metallica and a Metallica tribute act. Lacking equivalents of the unpredictable Gaël Monfils or the dreadlocked Dustin Brown, the women’s game remains deadlocked in the power phase. Since the retirement of the glorious Justine Henin-Hardenne none of the top women play with a single-handed backhand. Without single-handed backhands the potential for beauty in tennis is severely cramped.
The final irony is that one emerges from Borg vs McEnroe fascinated not by the rivalry, but by the legendary tie-break after which, as Tim Adams memorably put it in his book On Being
John McEnroe, Borg came out for the fifth set “as if nothing had happened”. That, as Adams writes, was one of the great moments in sport. But a great film could potentially be made about the nothing that did happen, after Borg retired at the precocious age of 26, after he turned his back on everything that gave his life meaning, or kept the lack of meaning at bay: a film, that is, about what happens to volcanoes after they opt for extinction. It could be so boring. It could be Bergmanesque.
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, played, below, by Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film Battle of the Sexes.
John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Centre Court, Wimbledon 1980; they are played, below, by Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason in the film Borg vs McEnroe.