Zendaya volleys between two best friends in smash-hit tennis drama: ‘Challengers’


“Challengers,” from Italian director Luca Guadagnino, is a drama-filled film that will have the audience wanting to pick up a tennis racket. The movie received mixed reviews, some hailing it as one of the best sports dramas of the decade, while others were left disappointed with the plot and directorial choices. Overall, the movie is a passionate exploration of sport, emotion, and relationships.

Behind the flashing lights, the long on-court battles, and well-dressed spectators, tennis isn’t the dazzling sport that it appears to be. The film shows the different tiers of tournaments, with increasing levels of competition, glory, and money. Grand Slams are at the top, with prize money in the  millions up for grabs and a chance at etching your name into the history books. Yet, the director chose the setting of the movie to be  in one of the lowest tiers in tennis and the namesake of the film: a Challenger tournament. 

We are introduced to Art, played by Mike Faist, a struggling former Grand Slam champion who is recently unable to string together wins. Patrick, his former best friend and doubles partner, is played by Josh O’Connor, a scruffy, charismatic hustler entering the twilight of his career.  He has been fighting for years in Challenger tournaments, but never managed to break through to the big leagues. Tashi, played by Zendaya, is a former junior superstar whose career was cut short due to an injury but is now the wife and coach of Art. 

Art and Patrick are set to play in the final of a Challenger tournament in New Rochelle, New York. Years before, the three leads are engaged in a complex and sexually charged love triangle. The two male leads have had a deeply close friendship since they were teenagers. The three are interwoven in a deep and intimate way, making it clear that the backdrop of the film is the sport, while the real plot is the relationships between the leads. 

Faist and O’Connor both have standout performances and they beautifully represent their characters’ internal struggles as they move through their lives. The characters’ emotions are portrayed vividly on and off the court. There are hints of love between the two male leads throughout the film, and they perfectly encapsulate the “friends and rivals” dynamic that is central to competitive tennis. Zendaya’s acting is amazing: her calm yet firm demeanor provides the perfect contrast to Faist and O’Connor’s explosive performances. Zendaya accurately portrays the effective combination of Tashi’s discipline and frustration that real tennis players feel on the court regularly.

Love and attraction are undoubtedly the main themes of the movie. Tashi bounces between the two male leads, and is intimate with both repeatedly throughout the film. This causes a rift to form between Art and Patrick, but it is clear they both yearn for a return of their former friendship. The intimate scenes serve as turning points in the relationship for all of them, marking important changes in relationship dynamics that supersede the physical. 

Zendaya conveys the complicated nature of love, showing the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly.

However, one of the criticisms of the movie is the unrealistic portrayal of tennis. Director Guadagnino said to the New York Times, “I was completely ignorant about tennis.” This lack of knowledge can be easily spotted in many of the tennis scenes. The tennis ball was CGI, and some shots seemed to defy gravity. The tennis scenes incorporated inventive but questionable choices in filming angles and blocking. Although intended to create tension and drama, parts of these scenes ended up coming across as awkward, and other parts of it inserted drama that would not normally happen in a tennis match.

As director Guadagnino said himself, this movie isn’t about tennis; it’s about love, relationships and dynamics between simultaneous competitors and friends. From the acting to the plot, the film leaves the viewer feeling fulfilled and exhilarated. However, as it is marketed as a sports romance,  Challengers clearly underdelivers on the representation of tennis. Nevertheless, it is an unexpected masterpiece in directing, storytelling,   love, and rivalry.