Metro Weekly

‘Challengers’ is a Sexy, Ripping Love Match (Review)

Zendaya serves up a deliciously savage tennis queen at the center of the love triangle drama "Challengers."

Challengers: Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor
Challengers: Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor

Tennis isn’t a contact sport but it can be brutal on the body, mind, emotions, and ego, especially at the elite pro level depicted so sharply in the ripping sports drama Challengers.

A tennis movie with much more on its menu, the film, directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), credibly captures the fiercely combative pro tour, where, for those at the top, the payoff in riches and fame can be massive.

For rising or journeyman players toiling on the sport’s minor league Challengers circuit, however, the struggle to train, travel, stay healthy and fit, and just pay bills bears few rewards greater than simply winning. And if you’re not winning, then what are you doing here?

That’s the ice-cold attitude espoused by tennis diva Tashi Duncan, portrayed with impervious brashness by Zendaya. The Euphoria star has earned two Emmys for her achingly raw, occasionally ferocious turn as teen addict Rue on that Max series, but her performance there is tinged with the pitiful sadness of the character’s drug problems.

Tashi, a tennis phenom sidelined by an injury, also carries an air of sadness, but there’s nothing pitiful about her. She’s human and complex, but, first and foremost, ruthlessly committed to winning. Now wife, coach, and manager to tennis superstar Art Donaldson, well-played by West Side Story star Mike Faist, Tashi has turned her winning focus to steering Team Donaldson with a firm hand.

She persuades Art — the former winner of two Wimbledon singles championships, along with two Australian Open and two French Open titles — to enter a Challenger event in hopes of reversing a major slump with some confidence-boosting wins against minor leaguers.

But standing between Art and the championship is his former best friend and doubles partner, Patrick Zweig, a slacker pro rendered with charm and oodles of sex appeal by The Crown’s Josh O’Connor, whose performance peaks off the court. Patrick might be a dangerous opponent for Art, both on the court, and, at times, for Tashi’s love and attention, but O’Connor is no match for his co-stars as a convincing onscreen tennis player.

Challengers: Mike Faist and Zendaya
Challengers: Mike Faist and Zendaya

As scripted, by first-time screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, Patrick is meant to be the less professional, less conventional player, so the portrayal tracks, to a degree. O’Connor does capture the guy’s strange ambivalence towards success, particularly as it cuts against Art’s low-key ambition to win at life, and Tashi’s all-out obsession with winning at tennis.

The threesome meet as juniors, in flashbacks that play out over the course of Art and Patrick’s tense final in the Phil’s Tire Town Challenger in New Rochelle, where the winner takes home a check for $7,200.

Guadagnino confidently bounces the story between past and present, filling in the pertinent twists in the triad’s relationship, including a heated hotel room tryst between Tashi and her boys, and several other scenes of seduction. Sometimes, as in a nude sauna tête-à-tête between Art and Patrick, it’s enjoyably hard to tell who’s seducing whom.

Challengers: Josh O'Connor and Zendaya
Challengers: Josh O’Connor and Zendaya

There certainly has not been a sexier tennis movie than Challengers, which finds sensuality in the players and in the game, photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Bones and All) from odd yet exciting angles, including a net’s-eye-view of the ball zooming past. The ball’s-eye-view careening across the net is probably a step too far, but those moments of excess suit the film’s gonzo spirit — no less than one windswept love scene set during a raging summer storm.

In the film’s quieter moments, the trio flirt and argue via philosophical banter about tennis, describing the rhythm and perfection created on-court by competitors at war. Art and Patrick’s pivotal final match, set to the galloping techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, exemplifies that beauty and conflict, and all the love that’s on the line with every bruising point.

Challengers (★★★★☆) is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit


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