“Challengers” serves more than tennis

Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in the recently released film “Challengers.” // Photo courtesy of IMDb

When thinking of tennis, the first words that come to mind are not sexual tension or romance. Yet, “Challengers” embraces a dramatic retelling of tennis through the lens of an R-rated “will they-won’t they” that lasts more than eighteen years. 

The sexual nature is no surprise, as the trailer and marketing campaigns focused largely on that aspect of the film. It is the depth of sexuality in these relationships and how the film anchors itself on unending sexual scenarios that prove unexpected.

“Challengers” follows the lives of Tashi (Zendaya), Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) from high school all the way until their final championship tournament years later. As a high school tennis prodigy, Tashi drew the attention of talented tennis players and best friends Art and Patrick. After an eventfully sensual night together, Art and Patrick vie for Tashi’s number, which she plans to award to the winner of their championship match. 

Already the three are connected, but after Patrick wins, he and Tashi begin a relationship with Art watching enviously from the sidelines. With a few calculated moves and Tashi’s unfortunate career-ending injury, Art subs in for Patrick and becomes Tashi’s lifelong partner. Pat and Art continue their separate tennis journeys until they meet again at a tennis championship and unearth buried secrets. 

Directed by Luca Guadagnino and led by Zendaya playing Tashi Davenport, Mike Faist playing Art Donaldson and Josh O’Connor playing Patrick Zweig, the film succeeds in beautiful characterization and enticing, interwoven dynamics. The acting is magnificent. The chemistry between Faist and O”Connor as best friends makes the movie. Their ability to transform their relationship from practically brothers to enemies with sarcasm, backhanded compliments and silent gazes is enticing. Unsurprisingly, Zendaya nailed the loveless, femme fatale that is Tashi Davenport and acted as a never-ending draw throughout the film.

Where the film loses some excitement is in its cinematography. The chosen shots seem distracting, with POV shots of Art and Patrick during their match mixed with POV shots of the tennis ball flying between rackets to a slow pan shifting focus on Tashi as she cries about her injury. The combination of these shots with the overall visuals of the film seem jarring and slightly out of place.

“Challengers” is smart. By bouncing around between timelines of the past and present, its nonlinear approach to the story succeeds extremely well. The entire movie takes place within the championship game of a tournament. With each set, the audience learns about a new chapter of Tashi, Art and Patrick’s lives.

Zendaya, Faist, O’Connor and Guadagnino, along with the rest of the film’s major contributors, joined together in a global press conference to talk about the film. 

While discussing the draw to join the “Challengers” cast and portray Tashi Davenport, Zendaya said, “We had a mock-table read at my agent’s house, and I just fell in love with the script. It was brilliant, and it also made me very nervous as something to tackle because of how complicated these characters are.” 

“But also, I couldn’t define what movie it was. It was funny, it was so funny, but I wouldn’t say it’s a comedy. There was drama, but I wouldn’t say it was just a drama. And it had tennis, but it wasn’t just a sports movie. That feeling that it was everything at once in a beautiful way was terrifying but equally exhilarating and exciting,” said Zendaya 

Director Guadagnino also spoke on why he decided to join the film, saying, “The script was fantastic. The characters were amazing. The structure was so cinematic that I just immediately instinctively felt that the company of Amy, the company of Zendaya and the company of Justin — the artistic endeavor that we could all gather together in this would have been fantastic.”

Faist recalled when he received the project, saying, “It’s really hard for my team to get me to read anything…and my agent called me and said ‘Mike you have to read this script’ so I said alright, that sounds serious. So, I read it, and-you know those moments when you’re like f*** I hate when other people are right.” 

“The thing that stood out to me that was the draw to want to do this was, besides the script and the team, was…this idea of a person, this craftsman, who’s fallen out of love with his craft and he’s so desperately trying to get back to that place of purity that place of — Josh uses the word flow — where you’re just in a form of transcendence when you’re just in your work and just in your craft and you actually love the process of doing it,” Faist said.  

O’Connor also told why he accepted the role. “What made me say yes was Luca and Zendaya, and — Mike wasn’t on board yet, but if he had that would have contributed…What I liked about Patrick initially…I thought this was beyond my reach and I felt this was a character who was so confident, so front-footed, so comfortable in himself even though he has, as we all do, fears and insecurities, but he completely lives life to the full and is very accepting of his flaws.” 

“And all those things seemed like a reach and Luca very brilliantly accepted that and made me feel comfortable around that. And there was a process, once we started preparing, where we had to pull those things out; it didn’t fit comfortably for me to not hide,” O’Connor said.

Throughout the film, Tashi makes questionable decisions that prove devastating to others but empowering for her. When asked about her character’s villainy, Zendaya said, “The response is the refreshing nature that it’s a female character that doesn’t have to be likable and doesn’t care about you liking her and doesn’t ask for forgiveness. And I think that that is probably refreshing to some people, and I understand that, and that was refreshing to me when I read her and that is why I wanted to play her.”

While explaining how her understanding of Tashi shifts with each viewing, Zendaya continued by saying, “I feel like it’s our natural instinct to judge people in general. And so it’s easy to judge these characters, and I understand that because we all do, and I think the beauty of this film is that your mind will change, because I know mine has.”

“Challengers” is a new style of story. By alluring audiences with a blend of actual matches and sports content with sexual tension and dramatic arguments, the film makes for a wild ride. Its exceptional cast and great screenwriting elevate the film into a success.