Arts and Entertainment

Challengers Makes a Racket and Then Smashes It

Knee injuries, churros, and growing up without your (tennis) partner: who would have known the Phil’s Tire Town challenger would have the sweatiest, most Uniqlo-sponsored love triangle of all time?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In 2011, Justin Kuritzkes, writer for the movie Challengers (2024), uploaded a short storytelling wonder to YouTube. He stars as a knight seeking a potion seller’s strongest potion before going into battle, only to be called the “weakest” of men by the potion seller. Amidst the repetitive, almost grueling back and forth between these characters, Kuritzkes gave us a taste of how we can find beauty in recurring failure. There’s something about the looks that the people in Challengers give each other as they plead for their romantic opponents to go easy on them that shows how Kuritzkes has sharpened the vertices of the love triangle construction, building on his ability to puncture us with the unattainability of what each character wants most. 

Challengers is the story of Tashi (Zendaya), on track to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time at the Junior US Open. When an injury diverts her career, she puts time into trying to recreate the same spark she found playing tennis through her relationship with her two best friends, one of whom she coaches, Art (Mike Faist), and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) who represents everything that she could’ve had. 

With Zendaya executive producing and starring, there are many draws that invite viewers of Challengers, especially those who have never had much interest in the sport of tennis (among those being director Luca Guadagnino himself), to refuse to be mere spectators. In an interview with Vulture, Kurtizkes reports, “One of the things I remember saying to Zendaya when we first met was that the cultural space that Zendaya occupies in the world is the space that the character Tashi was supposed to occupy—that was the life she was supposed to have.” Every aspect of this movie wants the audience to allow themselves to be hit back and forth across the timeline of these characters’ interactions with each other, loving that what makes love unpredictable is what makes it worth playing.

Challengers revolves around subverting the audience’s expectations without excluding them. The audience is empowered with several motifs throughout the story, and foreshadowing is one of the primary vehicles of storytelling. Lines of dialogue are recycled by different characters in opposing contexts. Some of the most heated exchanges off the court are received by viewers exactly like tennis: a lot of the characters’ reactions to specific lines fall through the cracks and are left up to the imagination because our field of view is so shaped by what Guadagnino wants us to be watching. 

Also of note: people breaking their racket out of frustration with their performance is not supposed to happen this often in tennis, but the writing indulges in it, almost as if to start afresh when the movie becomes self-aware of how languid and overly smoothed-down its shots are getting. Guadagnino’s attempt here at a limp and slightly repetitive volley in his larger game against pacing fails to deflect the buildup of dullness (in the setting, in how resigned and angry characters seem to be with themselves when they make decisions critical to the future of their relationships). Even though we are meant to be reaping the rewards of a structure that has made us guess at origin stories, when it comes time to finally test out writer Justin Kuritzkes’ hypothesis that this back-and-forth timeline will prove effective, our collection of this information only feels like something to hold in our hands as we watch: a power-up that we feel prompted to apply at any time in the final scene. 

When it comes to characterization, Guadagnino sends us some easy shots to return, building characters whose interests outside of tennis are left out of the picture to better accommodate a very specific range of motions for each character. Case in (match) point: Patrick’s tennis serve. He tauntingly hovers the racket above his head before choosing a random moment to hit the ball, which is unique to how much of a contrarian he prides himself on being. Art, almost naively, sets the tennis ball squarely in the center of his racket before serving, his eye contact a motif to prepare the viewer for moments when the film is going to strike. What drives the tension between the two boys is not so much the physicality they feel comfortable expressing with each other as long-time (tennis) partners, but rather the fact that they are foils for each other—they’ve grown up with different strengths that make them behave as a necessary and inseparable unit. Challengers treats the intersection between sports and romance in a way that shows us that while relationships all draw from the same vocabulary of a familiar and defined set of actions, the style and timing of how they are delivered are most important.

Guadagnino shows his audience ways that people interact with food that we never imagined could have narrative meaning. The way that Patrick continues to fuel himself with food after Art has outgrown all of it—to the point where Art grimaces through optimized pink energy drinks also references the long-lost health of childhood and reinstates the idea that we can never outgrow the joy we had when we played these sports solely for the fun they brought us. In this way, the movie feels more reflective of a coming-of-age experience, fitting for a movie with characters whose central problem is arguably their difficulty in growing up and moving beyond their past. Throughout Art’s arc, there’s the pervasive fear that Patrick can achieve anything naturally that Art must achieve artificially; we see Art bolster himself with Cool Blue Gatorade at lunch with Tashi as a way of off-sourcing the confidence he thinks he needs to some magical potion. It’s fitting that the most success he has in his relationship with Tashi is with all the lack of artifice of a parking lot in an Applebee’s, where the nutritional value of food doesn’t matter in the face of genuine connection and self-assuredness.

 Challengers is infatuated with involving the audience in the story itself. In the same way, each character involved in this dynamic derives enjoyment from how essential they are to the relationship between the other two people. The introduction of techno music to underscore every moment that a polite tennis-watching audience would expect to require utter silence and concentration makes it clear to viewers that they are expected to join in this game. When Art and Patrick sit five feet apart from each other in a sauna before their upcoming match, someone cues the bounce of an almost fully synthetic, original score again, almost as if Guadagnino is trying to tell us over it all, “Isn’t this cool? Here comes my favorite part…” This is one reason why the dialogue is not always given the freedom to travel all the way across the court before the audience can really appreciate its delivery. Guadagnino giddily dumps a series of visual effects on us at the very end, as if he’s been saving them for the matchpoint, and would have distracted from the character-driven tension of the story in that final scene if they weren’t anchored by such consistently measured acting.

Even so, it’s all a game, and it needs to move forward. The soundtrack is full of tennis rackets—during the most intense lover’s spats, we can’t be sure they’re not talking about tennis. Likewise, every time tennis is mentioned, the topic is always a way to bring up the third person in their triangle. From the way Patrick continues to wear Tashi’s shirt years after they part ways to the way Art spits his gum into Tashi’s hand before a match in the exact same way he used to do with Patrick as a teenager, the third presence is always with these characters as a result of them taking their injuries and love with them into adulthood. Luckily, Challengers makes us know that this “third presence” doesn’t ever have to be in our imagination alone.