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Tennis anyone? Toronto serves up Borg-McEnroe biopic

Shia LeBoeuf takes selfies with fans as he arrives on the red carpet for the premiere of the film “Borg/McEnroe” during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

TORONTO (AP) — Though seldom a smash on the big screen, tennis movies took center court at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Borg/McEnroe” opened the annual festival Thursday.

The film, starring Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg, is the opening volley in the ten-day Canadian festival, a premiere launching pad for the fall’s most anticipated films. This year, tennis is getting perhaps its most serious film treatment yet in movies. The Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs showdown “Battle of the Sexes” is also to premiere in Toronto, as is the documentary “Love Means Zero,” about tennis coach Nick Bollettieri.

The movies arrive conveniently as the U.S. Open nears its finally rounds in Flushing, New York. McEnroe, a popular broadcaster, wasn’t in attendance. He has previously been skeptical of the film, complaining that its filmmakers and performers didn’t meet him.

McEnroe has been even more dubious of tennis movies — and their unconvincing gameplay — in general. He last year told Vanity Fair, “They are all terrible.”

But LaBeouf expressed nothing but admiration for McEnroe on Thursday in Toronto, saying he’d love to meet him. “He’s a busy guy,” shrugged LaBeouf.

“Borg/McEnroe” focuses on the rivalry and 1980 Wimbledon finals between the different-tempered tennis legends. It’s a Swedish production, directed by the Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen. The indie distributor Neon is expected to release it this fall, though no date has yet been announced.

The film depicts McEnroe and Borg not so much as opposites but similarly obsessive, driven athletes who channeled their all-consuming intensity in different ways.

“He used rage as a tactic to throw people off,” said LaBeouf of McEnroe. “He manufactured his intensity to hype himself up. In that way, he’s an artist.”

LaBeouf may still not satisfy McEnroe; the actor isn’t left-handed, for one. But LaBeouf has already matched and exceeded McEnroe in tantrum throwing. The Toronto Film Festival was LaBeouf’s first prominent appearance since his videotaped arrest for public drunkenness and other charges in July.

LaBeouf was seen yelling at Savannah, Georgia, police officers and claiming that “a black man arrested me for being white.” LaBeouf later apologized for his behavior and said, “My outright disrespect for authority is problematic to say the least, and completely destructive to say the worst. It is a new low. A low I hope is a bottom.”

LaBeouf didn’t address that incident Thursday. But he acknowledged feeling strong parallels with a combative, once-misunderstood McEnroe who preferred to talk about tennis than about his behavior.

“It’s quite cathartic,” said LaBeouf, adding that if he elaborated, “I’d put my foot in my mouth.” The film, said the actor, “expresses something I feel deeply.”

While other sports (boxing, baseball) have seen countless big-screen tales, Hollywood has typically been reluctant to serve up tennis tales. There was Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” which featured a tennis star drafted into a devious murder plot; Woody Allen’s Oscar-nominated “Match Point”; and the 2004 romantic-comedy “Wimbledon.” Most memorable perhaps was Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which included a flashback of Luke Wilson’s tennis pro having a complete meltdown, committing 72 unforced errors and, mid-match, removing his shoes and socks.

But “Borg/McEnroe” and “Battle of the Sexes” are the first major films to try to bring some of tennis’ big personalities to the screen. Hopes are higher for “Battle of the Sexes,” which stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell. That film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) has already earned warm reviews and some Oscar buzz ahead of its Toronto debut, having played earlier in the week at the Telluride Film Festival.

Though “Borg/McEnroe” was greeted by mixed reviews, Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the festival, said it captured the sport like it hasn’t been before.

“What impressed me most about this film was how it made that clash (of opposites) cinematic,” said Bailey in remarks before the film. “How it captured the rhythm of tennis and how it showed the interplay between mind and body.”