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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bjorn Borg, John MCEnroe

"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," actor Shia LaBeouf said of playing John McEnroe.

Photo credit: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Avid art collector John McEnroe is one of tennis’ greatest touch artists.

The former world No. 1 is also the game’s ultimate performance artist says the man who plays McEnroe in the new Borg-McEnroe movie.

Watch: Battle of the Sexes Trailer 

Actor Shia LaBeouf views Johnny Mac’s temper tantrums as tactical tools designed to ignite his inferno of intensity and unsettle opponents.

“I think it’s more complicated. I think he’s a tactician,” LaBeouf said at the Toronto International Film Festival’s press conference at the film’s premiere. “He really added something different to the game. When he entered the game, it was baseliners, it was a power sport and Borg was the king of that. (McEnroe) brought touch and feel and a sensitivity to the game that wasn’t there before.

“It’s not just screaming rage. 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 very thought-through though it wasn’t explained. It was very hard to sit in situations like this and explain that kind of tactical position in tennis at that time. Because the narrative was cartoons. It was bad guy vs. good guy and it was very hard to get to the honesty bit.”

Borg-McEnroe opened the Toronto International Film Festival last week.

Here's a look at the film's trailer:

The famed Fire and Ice rivalry is reignited with the widespread release of the new Borg-McEnroe feature film on September 15th.

Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason is cast as Swedish Iceman Borg and bears a striking resemblance to the former world No. 1. Gudnason met Borg for the first time before the five-time Wimbledon champion saw the film.

“I would say he’s the biggest athlete the country has ever had,” Gudnason said of Borg’s place in Swedish culture. “He’s well-known in the rest of the world. In those days, those guys were the first rock stars of tennis. The sport was changing. They were rock stars.”

Here's what the actors said about the tennis icons they portrayed:

Director Janus Metz sees the story of the rivals as “a psychological thriller” rather than a standard sports film. But because the film’s climax focuses on the famed 1980 Wimbledon championship match, the two stars' tennis skills were vital. The actors played in an intense tennis boot camp for more than a half year before filming began to build their strokes.

“Essentially, Borg-McEnroe is a psychological thriller, if you like,” Metz said. “Obviously, you’re making a film about two legendary icons—the best tennis players in the world—then the tennis has to sell. It has to work. So without that, the movie doesn’t work. That meant I had to put these two guys through intense training. They were so dedicated in doing that. So they were doing boot camp for six to eight months, tennis training every day.”

Here's how the actors stack up to the champions:

Since neither Gudnason nor LaBeouf had played tennis previously, both actors spent about two hours a day training in addition to working out like professional athletes. Gudnason said the physical training was vital to understanding the psychology of the champions.

“We just played a lot of tennis… Tennis two hours per day and some physical training also,” Gudnason said. “That was just a key into the part. You had to live that life as an athlete to understand the part of Bjorn Borg and McEnroe.”

The classic 1980 Wimbledon final in which Borg fought off McEnroe remains one of the highest-quality clashes in Wimbledon history.

The mercurial McEnroe fought off five match points to win that fourth-set tiebreaker—he saved seven match points in the fourth set overall—but Borg’s brilliance in the fifth set saw the stoic Swede earn a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 victory to capture his fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown.

"You had two different personalities," Borg said. "I come from Sweden, where our mentality is a little laid-back, a little more quiet. John grew up outside New York and he’s a little bit more outspoken."

LaBeouf exchanged email with McEnroe before filming began, but has yet to meet the Hall of Famer in person.

"He's a very busy guy," LaBeouf said.

Recreating McEnroe’s magical touch and maddening meltdowns was a bit like performing in a tightly-choreographed ballet, LaBeouf said.

"We rehearsed things like a ballet, including his outbursts,” LaBeouf said. “I would literally play them on a screen right before we would film and look at where everything was. It was very paint-by-the-numbers in a way.”

The actor revisited another virtuoso—Mozart—to help prepare him to step into McEnroe's Nikes.

“It’s a bit like watching Amadeus. He’s a Mozart-like character," the actor said. "So I watched Amadeus a lot. I don’t think he really understood. He wasn’t asking himself these questions when this was going on. He was a young man. Everything was really loud and fast. So I don’t think he was really searching. He was just trying to win.”

In an interview with Tennis Now earlier this year, McEnroe said of LaBeouf "I hear he's crazy, so that may be good thing."

Here's what McEnroe has said about the film:

Since the start of their rivalry, which spanned just 14 matches, Borg and McEnroe have frequently been cast as stylistic opposites. However, director Metz sees strong similarities between the brash New Yorker and quiet Swede.

For Metz, McEnroe and Borg were addicts and tennis was their narcotic.

"It was about two very different ways of manufacturing intensity," Metz said. "How did these two guys chase that? In some ways you could say this is a portrait of two drug addicts. Their drug is tennis, their drug is intensity their drug is being there here now."


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