Monday 23 April 2018

Anyone for tennis?

Inspired by a new film about court rivals Björn Borg and John McEnroe, Paul Whitington serves up 10 of his favourite sports movies

Rivals who became friends: Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason in Borg/ McEnroe
Rivals who became friends: Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason in Borg/ McEnroe
Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961)
Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963)
Paul Newman in Slap Shot
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
Gene Hackman in Hoosiers
Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams
Tobey Maguire in Seabiscuit
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
Formula One film Rush

I was intrigued when a friend pointed out to me that the new sports drama Borg/McEnroe, which opened here yesterday, is known in Sweden simply as Borg. That might sound hubristic to John McEnroe fans, but Björn Borg retains a unique status in his own country. The greatest Swedish sports person of all time, and one of the greatest tennis players of all time, he won six French Opens and five consecutive Wimbledon titles before retiring abruptly at the age of 26.

His hard-hitting topspin-baseline game changed tennis forever, and in his pomp ensured he was as famous as any pop star. Borg's poster adorned the bedrooms of millions of adoring teenage girls, and his messianic look and ice-cool temperament only added to the allure. But in Janus Metz Pedersen's entertaining film, we discover that Borg had a lot more in common with the notoriously temperamental McEnroe than people realised.

The only child of working-class parents, Borg (played in the film by Sverrir Gudnason) learnt to play tennis by hitting balls against a garage door, and developed a distinctive unorthodox style. Swedish tennis's snobbish elite were not impressed by him, but a Davis Cup coach called Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) spotted Björn's raw talent. But before he could reach his potential, Borg would have to master a bad temper, and on-court outbursts.

John McEnroe (played here by Shia LaBoeuf), the eldest son of a wealthy Manhattan corporate lawyer, used on-court tantrums to focus, and the inevitable collision of he and Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final is the dramatic focal point of this film. And though the two men seemed to have nothing much in common, they would end up becoming best friends.

The best sports films use competition as a means of exploring character, but must also find a way of believably depicting the sport in question. Borg/McEnroe succeeds on both fronts, and will provide older tennis fans with an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

It's not one of the great sports pictures, but masterpieces in this genre are few and far between. Can anyone, for instance, name a half-decent drama based around soccer? Boxing seems to lend itself perfectly to the melodrama of motion pictures, and I could have easily filled this list of the best sports movies with boxing films, but have restricted myself to one.

Raging Bull is the best sports picture ever made, in my opinion, a movie that examines the terrible price that athletic success can entail. Here are my other favourites.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Great sports pictures are all about character and emotion, and they don't come much more emotional than this thoroughly winning 1940s weepy. Pride of the Yankees stars Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, a soft-spoken college graduate who doesn't impress the hardened pros at the New York Yankees when he's drafted. His affability and powerful hitting soon win over Babe Ruth and the team, and Lou becomes a great favourite with the fans. But in his prime, Gehrig is cut down by a rare motor neuron disease that would eventually be named after him. In a heartbreaking finale, Lou tells the Yankee fans that "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth".

The Hustler (1961)

Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961)

Robert Rossen's gritty and groundbreaking 1961 sports film lifted the lid on the seedy world of professional pool. Paul Newman starred as 'Fast Eddie' Felson, a Californian pool hustler who travels to New York City to challenge the legendary 'Minnesota Fats' (Jackie Gleason). When he loses badly in a high-stakes game, Fast Eddie gets so obsessed with beating Fats that he becomes a danger to himself and everyone around him. Newman was exceptional as the hungry young man who's prepared to lose everything in order to win.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris grew up playing rugby, and was perfectly cast in this memorable Lindsay Anderson film. Among the best of the so-called kitchen-sink dramas of the late 1950s and early 60s, This Sporting Life starred Harris as Frank Machin, a Yorkshire coalminer who catches the eye of a local rugby-league coach during an altercation in a nightclub. Hired to play as a loose forward for the team, he excels. But Frank's success makes him arrogant, and his treatment of a local widow exposes his shallowness as a human being. It's grim stuff, and flopped on its release, but is now considered a masterpiece.

Slap Shot (1977)

Paul Newman in Slap Shot

Brash, foul-mouthed, salty and extremely funny, Slap Shot is the best film ever made about ice hockey, and like all the best sports pictures, it has a lot of heart. Paul Newman is Reggie Dunlop, the canny player/coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, a struggling minor league hockey team. When plans are announced to close Charlestown's steel factory, Reggie fears the team and the town are about to go bust. So they decided to make a name for themselves by playing dirty, leading to all sorts of hilarious unpleasantness. This was Newman's personal favourite of his films.

Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

It was Robert De Niro who persuaded Martin Scorsese to shoot this extraordinary boxing biopic after reading a book on the life of 1940s middleweight Jake LaMotta. A tough Italian kid from the Bronx, LaMotta (who died this week) became one of the world's most celebrated middleweights but he was also a self-destructive man whose stubbornness and jealousy would destroy his career and life. De Niro was remarkable as both the younger and older LaMotta, and Scorsese's decision to shoot in black and white and set slow-motion fight scenes to the music of Giuseppe Verdi proved inspired.

Hoosiers (1986)

Gene Hackman in Hoosiers

David Anspaugh's 1980s drama is one of the most moving and feel-good sporting films of all. Gene Hackman is Norman Dale, a 1950s high-school teacher who arrives in the small town of Hickory, Indiana to take on the post of basketball coach. Hickory's basketball team haven't won a thing in ages, and Norman's cautious tactics initially make him unpopular in the town. But he wins his players and the public over, and the film culminates in a magnificently nail-biting championship final.


Field of Dreams (1989)

Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams

In this charming comic fantasy, Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a struggling midwestern farmer who decides to turn his cornfield into a baseball park after hearing a voice that whispers the cryptic message, "if you build it, he will come". At first nothing happens, and soon he and his family are facing financial ruin. But one night he sees a man in an old-fashioned baseball outfit emerge from the corn, and something extraordinary transpires. There are echoes of Frank Capra in the film's outlandish storyline, and Costner is excellent.

Seabiscuit (2003)

When Gary Ross's film based on the exploits of legendary American thoroughbred Seabiscuit came out in 2003, it was criticised for its excessive sentiment. And while the film does pile on the emotion with a trowel, it's hard not to be moved by the story of an undersized horse and his crocked jockey. Considered too small and unmanageable, Seabiscuit was a 1930s thoroughbred who'd been consigned to the scrapheap by the time he was spotted by a millionaire car dealer (Jeff Bridges). Together with a canny trainer (Chris Cooper) and a spirited jockey called Red (Tobey Maguire), they nurture the rebellious horse until he's ready to take on the world.

The Wrestler (2008)

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Is pro-wrestling a sport? I'm not sure, but this gripping Darren Aronofsky drama memorably examines the fate of the ageing athlete and revived the career of Mickey Rourke. He is Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a professional wrestler who used to be a big shot back in the 1980s but now lives in a trailer park and wrestles for money at the weekends. But Randy thinks his luck has changed when he falls in love and is asked to take part in a lucrative rematch of one his most famous fights.

Rush (2013)

Ron Howard knows how to tell a story, and in Rush he compellingly recreated an era where Formula One was actually interesting. During the long, hot summer of 1976, an epic battle was played out across the great race tracks of Europe by two drivers with wildly contrasting styles. While Austrian champion Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) was fiercely organised and methodical, his British rival James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a dashing and reckless risk-taker with a fearless driving style. Their intense struggle would grip the world, and end in triumph and ­tragedy.

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