McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice debuts tonight on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The opening of McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice is not auspicious. The two men walk onto Wimbledon's Centre Court, as the strings play, they smile in the sun, the music swells to an inspiring crescendo, and it looks really, patently, Prestige Documentary Boring.
Then Borg and McEnroe start talking, and it gets a hell of a lot more interesting, with the Sex Pistols playing and Britain-versus-America brawls in the Wimbledon press room.
Okay, it's a little bit less obvious than that, with a slow build-up instead of an immediate switch into excellence. First, the documentary goes through their childhoods. Borg struggles through on-court outbursts as a youngster, eventually deciding to go completely stoic and quickly becoming the best player in the world. McEnroe's path seems a little less direct, as he tries other sports before settling on tennis, largely because he doesn't have to deal with coaches or other players.
As the two subjects talk about their initial meetings, now over 30 years removed from them, their personalities start to shine through. Borg is affable and handsome even at age 55, with a slight twinkle in his eye. McEnroe, who's no stranger to those who still watch tennis in America as a major commenter for NBC, is as charismatic as ever. His competitive instincts seem to kick in when, describing their first competitive match in a tournament in Sweden, he says that he beat Borg in the “semis of Stockholm, a big deal. And he's gonna try to downplay it.” (Borg doesn't appear to downplay it, but it could be edited out). Later, McEnroe talks about beating Borg at the US Open, saying “I bet you that at two-sets-all he thought he was going to win his first Open” with a snide grin that says “yeah, I showed him!”
Fire & Ice's narrow focus on just Borg & McEnroe builds up an idea that the two men entered into a competitive symbiotic relationship, which McEnroe wanting to be like Borg - “So I was desperate to have hair like Bjorn, it sort of went out like Bozo the Clown more” - and Borg taking McEnroe under his wing a bit, with an discussion at the net during a McEnroe temper tantrum in which Borg tells McEnroe to “relax, it's just a game.” McEnroe relaxes – and then wins the match.
That intense focus seems to remove a lot of the rest of the tennis world, and implies a certain necessary psycho-drama to the rivalry. As the story progresses, and both men become champions at the top of their game, that drama reaches a sad point. Without Borg, McEnroe is nothing, Fire & Ice claims, but with McEnroe, Borg is nothing. Borg being beaten by McEnroe in the '81 US Open final triggers Borg's retirement, with the implication that Borg can't handle not being the best after he gets supplanted. And once Borg is gone, the documentary just glides past the rest of McEnroe's career, seeming to make the case that without his great rival, Johnny Mac wasn't as interested in being a champion.
This seems a little unfair to both men and definitely unfair to the rest of tennis, but I have to admit, the way that Fire & Ice builds up their relationship over its running time, it certainly makes a strong case that the McEnroe/Borg personal relationship directly affected their play on the court. And at the end, when McEnroe says he's finally at the point where he can say “I love you, man” back to Borg when they talk on the phone.
The conventional story arc of show isn't the main reason to watch, though. The main reason to watch is because, even to non-tennis fans, Borg and McEnroe are incredibly compelling subjects (my sports-hating girlfriend watched and enjoyed the whole thing). McEnroe's “Brat” persona is here, yes, but through his words and those of the other talking heads, you get a three-dimensional portrait of a man who seems to have thought things out and tried to make the best he could out of his life. Yes, he cared a lot, occasionally too much and occasionally too little, about tennis, but you get the feeling that he actually is who he is, impetuous, charismatic, funny, and highly competitive.
Borg, on the other hand, is more of a mystery, and I think Fire & Ice subtly makes the point that his supposed icy persona masked some deeper issues. The easily angered teenager doesn't seem to have grown up in any way except for masking all his emotions, which makes his later decisions unfathomable, even to himself. This shows up most directly during Borg's comeback attempt, in which he perversely used a wooden racket, and lost every match he played. Why? It's unclear, apparently even to himself. McEnroe's shenanigans may have seemed a little crazy, but they also seemed true to himself. I'm not even sure what that means in Borg's case.
If I have any significant complaint about Fire & Ice other than its introduction, it's that it doesn't show quite as much tennis as I'd like, though it does get more into the nitty-gritty during the famous 4th set tiebreaker in the 1980 Wimbledon final. At every other level, though, it's a success, fascinatingly telling a story of what it's like to be the best in the world at something. I can't wait for the Sampras/Agassi, Federer/Nadal, and especially S. Williams/Henin versions in the future.