Challengers Review: The Grandest of Slams

Your new favourite sports movie

Let’s face it: tennis is pure sex. Second only to beach volleyball in entertainment value, or perhaps men’s diving, tennis delivers the heat. The sport thrills as players grunt, rally, and sweat, mounting the tension with each tap of the ball. Challengers wins bigtime when bringing to screen a story of the sport in which all scores begin with love.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Bones & All) and debut writer Justin Kuritzkes find perfect heat with a love-triangle set amidst the professional tennis circuit. Zendaya (Dune 2) stars as Tashi, a tennis superstar whose dreams of going pro were dashed by an accident. She instead rules the court as a coach. Her client is her husband, Art (West Side Story’s Mike Faist), whose stock is falling. To pick him back up with eyes on winning the U.S. Open, Tashi enlists Art in a “challenger” tournament. It’s basically a bush league tournament where players compete for cash and a long-shot chance at a bigger event.

There’s a kicker, though. That same tournament features Patrick (La Chimera’s Josh O’Connor). He’s Art’s former best friend and tennis partner. He’s also Tashi’s ex. As the men inevitably set their eyes on the prize—Tashi or the title, take your pick—the tension thickens with electrifying sparks.

The reunion opens old wounds and re-ignites old flames. There’s also a clue that Patrick is, at least, a little bit bisexual as he Tinder swipes away before the match. As for Art, there’s more ambiguity, but some particularly great come-hither glances to hold everyone’s interest.


Challengers jumps back in time to explore the camaraderie of these two men who were thick as thieves since their pre-teen days. Patrick and Art have great chemistry. It seems like typically boisterous intimacy between long-time friends. However, once Tashi enters the picture and both teens set their eyes on junior tennis’s hottest star, the plot twists. Tashi, in a motel room make-out session, asks the question that’s on everyone’s mind: Have Patrick and Art ever…you know?

Challengers then volleys this palpable heat back and forth as Patrick and Art serve, slam, and smash their way to the top. Everything in their long-time friendship and feud is on the line. (It’s worth noting, too, that back in the teenage scenes, Tashi tells the boys that she’ll give her number to whichever of them wins the next game.)

The film finds in the tennis tournament the ideal metaphor for unrequited love, but also infidelity and alpha male showmanship. Penned by Justin Kuritzkes, whose wife Celine Song made last year’s three-to-tango drama Past Lives, it thrillingly considers “What if?” Challengers knows in its bones that the biggest motivator can be playing for the one that got away.

Audiences looking to compare the love triangles of Challengers and Past Lives will get the rewards they expect. Coming from the male’s perspective, Challengers inevitably offers the hornier of the two stories. It’s just about the hottest movie ever made in which the three stars mostly keep their clothes on. At the same time, they films are a perfect match. Both films are kindred spirits emotionally. They find common ground with the story of a marriage threatened by the arrival of a former flame. But whereas Past Lives generally keeps the men separate, Challengers ups the ante by connecting their past lives with Tashi’s own. There’s no easy walk away here, and the past is tangled, messy, and oh so very, very hot.


At the same time, both films afford women central agency in the triangle. Tashi, like Nora (Greta Lee), ultimately has to make the call, while both films inject love triangles with racial dynamics that speak to privilege and different social experiences of the woman and the men. (Tashi didn’t go to boarding school, while her white beaus did.)

Challengers also brings the heat big time with the triple threat of its cast. Zendaya offers her best film performance yet as Tashi commands the screen from the sidelines. With a flicker and glance, she controls whichever man she chooses. It’s a ferociously confident performance, especially since Tashi often proves unlikable. The manipulative maneater plays the meanest game of all from offside.

Meanwhile, Faist and O’Connor are perfectly matched as the rival love interests. Both actors have a distinct magnetic charm and offer different hallmarks of masculinity that may appeal to Tashi depending on her mood. Most crucially, the actors have electric chemistry. A friendly rivalry rings throughout Challengers as their bromance reaches its zenith with the film’s climactic match point. The stars gamely tap into tennis’s sexual heat, too, as Patrick and Art square off on the court with one orgasmic tennis grunt after another signalling a good backhand.

Director Luca Guadagnino offers the sexiest eye for sports the cinema’s seen in recent memory, too. Each game, set, and match of Challengers provides a feast of sweaty eye candy. People who don’t get the appeal of watching sports will come to understand the reason. The film volleys hard, too, as the slick editing by Marco Costa and cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom capture the intensity of the game with an exhilarating eye for action.


Some POV shots of the tennis balls, meanwhile, provide an unexpected rush. (I literally jumped in my seat like the a viewer at a Méliès film when the ball came hurtling at me.) Best of all, the propulsive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross fuels the drama with adrenaline-pumping passion. The music sets the stage for a taut blow/counter-blow between rivals on the court, but the energy could easily be transported to a faceoff on the dance floor.

As the heads in the audience volley back and forth between the serves that Patrick and Art lob over the net, Challengers delivers a cinematic workout. Anticipate a cold shower afterwards.

Challengers opens in theatres April 26.