New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Challengers’ volleys between on and off-court tension

Fear not, athletically challenged viewers: Luca Guadagnino’s new tennis drama centers on the sport, but the real heat is off the court.
“Challengers” released in theaters on April 26, 2024. (Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios)

Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has mastered erotic subtext in his filmography; by means of cannibals in “Bones and All” and even peaches in “Call Me by Your Name,” his characters exist in a space beyond what’s on screen. 

His new film, “Challengers,” is no different in its steamy, sensual portrayal of tennis. “It’s a relationship,” says tennis pro-turned-coach and central character Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). If tennis is a relationship, then the focal match in “Challengers” is a sexually repressed one, mirroring that of Arthur “Art” Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), the players on both ends of the net.

Art and Patrick met in boarding school, once comprising an inseparable doubles pair known as “Fire and Ice,” though it’s never explicitly said who was which. At a 2006 Juniors Open match they ogle and fawn over the up-and-coming Tashi from the stands, eventually leading to a love triangle. During her heated game, they grip each other’s legs in anticipation and excitement, finding the sport to be ecstatic.

“Challengers” is straddled between their past and the present: A 2019 Challenger match in New Rochelle appears otherwise unimportant, if not for the fact that Art and Patrick find themselves at odds on the court after a falling-out years ago that can be traced back to their competing interest in Tashi. 

At present, the two appear to be diametrically opposed: Art’s married to Tashi, who coaches him after her own career prematurely ended after an on-court injury in college, and Patrick is living out of his car, vulturing for places to stay out of his most recent Tinder matches. While Art’s a pro player ranked within the top 100, competing to hopefully end his losing streak, a win for Patrick means a shot at qualifying for the US Open, which would launch him into tennis stardom. 

Tennis is established as a means to explore unresolved tension throughout “Challengers.” Deadlocked eye contact with the ball or player in front of the net transitions seamlessly into puppy-dog infatuation in the bedroom as Art and Patrick both shamelessly attempt to court the flirtatious Tashi, who insists she’s “not a homewrecker” after sizing up the pair’s palpable chemistry. Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay reinforces this tension through heated locker room banter between Art and Patrick, boasting about sex while in practice and exclaiming a desire to be fucked by Tashi with a racket.

Tashi’s impact on the boys is symmetrical, even if their trajectories aren’t. She’s volleyed between the two, frustrating them sexually, which we see each time Patrick or Art lunge toward a tennis ball with animalistic grunts. Despite their commanding presence on the court, both Fire and Ice melt under Tashi’s touch. This is evident when she orchestrates a three-way makeout session, which ultimately devolves into a signature Guadagnino moment of undeniable homoeroticism. 

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom depicts these moments in subtleties, such as close-ups with gradual gaze-hardening between Tashi and her boys, or in wide shots where the camera flies through the air like a tennis ball. The audience and the character hold their breath at each moment, anticipating the next stroke or affair — a feeling intensified by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ sweaty techno score. “Challengers” opens with the eyes, bobbed back and forth between players, but ends in larger, more sensual views of the entire body, lurched and lunged towards the ball because the sake of the game learns to depend on it — both on the court and in their personal lives.

Weather contributes to these moments of tension just as much as physicality, something commonly explored in Guadagnino’s films, especially in the frustrating summer of “Call Me by Your Name.” The throuple’s initial makeout session is underscored by sweltering heat as if to signify an overflow of sexual frustration, echoed at the film’s close by Art and Patrick perspiring profusely during the tie-breaker set of the Challenger, the closest they’ve been to each other in years. The volatility of Tashi’s affair with Patrick is experienced in a vortex of wind, papers and debris spinning around them as they reconnect after a nasty college breakup. 

Tashi, Patrick and Art each crack under the environmental pressures that surround them, allowing ego and competition to dominate their relationships. Tashi’s fixation on her lost career manifests itself in her controlling each facet of Art’s life, not just in tennis, making it difficult to believe she’s in any of this for love, while Patrick’s stuck in the hedonistic mindset of his past, voracious for the satisfaction of beating out his competitors. Art, who is too lovestruck with Tashi, fails to explicate his growing disdain for the sport and is too jealous of Patrick’s relationship with her to reconcile their past.

Tennis is a relationship, sure, but the characters assert their belief that even relationships need to be won as they stumble through unresolved tension from past flings. But the winning play in “Challengers” isn’t a romantic gesture. It’s instead a moment of pure exhilaration and excitement that transcends the court and reminds the trio of how invigorating the sport — and interpersonal connection — can be.

You can watch “Challengers” at Village East by Angelika, Regal Union Square and AMC Village 7.

Contact Dani Biondi at [email protected].

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