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…

The Observer - The New Review - - THE NEW REVIEW - Borg vs McEn­roe is re­leased on Fri­day; Bat­tle of the Sexes is out on 24 Nov. Ge­off Dyer’s lat­est book, White Sands, is pub­lished by Canon­gate.

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.

Bettman Archive

Bil­lie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, played, be­low, by Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film Bat­tle of the Sexes.

Getty Images

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.

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