Challengers: A Complex Dance of Love and Tennis

"Challengers," directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by Justin Kuritzkes, is a captivating blend of sports and romantic drama that explores the intricate dynamics of love, ambition, and rivalry set against the backdrop of professional tennis

by Sededin Dedovic
Challengers: A Complex Dance of Love and Tennis
© Warner Bros. New Zealand / Youtube channel

"Challengers" is a blend of sports and romantic drama directed by Luca Guadagnino, with a screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes. The story follows tennis champion Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), who is in a slump, and with the help of his wife, Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), a former successful player forced to retire due to injury, he attempts to regain his former glory.

Standing in his way is Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), his former best friend with whom he started playing tennis. Tennis serves as the backdrop for this film, while the love triangle forms the core of the plot. However, the film isn't really about tennis.

Instead, it explores a larger question: are any of these characters capable of loving anything other than the game, competition, and those peak moments on the tennis court? When the answer to this question becomes clear, the film opens up in unexpected and much deeper ways.

"Challengers" is a sports film that focuses much more on its characters than the game itself, to the extent that even the fast-paced, exhausting tennis sequences begin to resemble wordless conversations.

Challengers: A Complex Dance of Love and Tennis© Warner Bros.

New Zealand / Youtube channel

None of these characters are particularly likable as individuals. They are athletes who are, were, or could be at the top of their chosen sport. They know this, believe it to the core of their being, and act accordingly.

We can't view them from the perspective of whom they love, their family lives, how they behave and talk to each other, and why they are so driven to succeed. These three are obsessed with chasing the top and the achievements they can attain.

The screenwriter knows this and genuinely believes it is the only factor that defines who these characters essentially are. This makes the film fascinating, sometimes funny, and highly dramatic in a way that may seem incredible with the premise of a tennis-based love triangle.

It features three great, lived-in performances from the main actors who understand that their characters aren't at all likable and must elevate their charm and acting quality to compensate for that. The narrative spans more than a decade, observing how the characters' careers rise and fall, how their romantic entanglements develop, dissolve, and occasionally collide, and how their professional and personal goals become ammunition for everyone to get what they want at any given moment.

Challengers: A Complex Dance of Love and Tennis© Warner Bros. New Zealand / Youtube channel

The film opens with a match between Art and Patrick at a second-tier tennis tournament in New Rochelle, New York. For Art, a Grand Slam winner, this is a significant step back, but a series of losses has shaken his confidence.

For Patrick, this is a potentially significant step forward, as he occasionally participates in major tournaments but needs this win to get another chance. Both are in their thirties, so they won't have many more opportunities for success on the tennis courts.

They know each other well, and through a series of flashbacks, we understand how close they once were and why emotional scars have caused more damage than physical ones. Art and Patrick were best friends, attended boarding school together, progressed through the junior league, and played doubles matches.

A girl comes into their relationship, and they become rivals, although they likely would have become rivals on and off the court regardless of what else happened in their lives. She is Tashi, a former junior league and college phenomenon, now Art's wife and coach.

The large scar on her knee speaks to the professional side of her story even before we see her. Tashi is the one who convinces Art to join the smaller tournament to regain his confidence – it seems she needs it as much as he does, if not more.

A lot happens as soon as Tashi enters the lives of the two men, both of whom are in love with her as a girl and as a tennis player. She notices this, feeds off it, and plays with their attention. There are mutual betrayals among the characters in the film, but the question arises whether it is possible to betray the romantic feelings of someone whose true feelings are limited to the game and being the best at it.

The performances bring this question to the forefront. Zendaya plays a cold, calculating player, coach, and wife who knows what she wants, meaning the guys know exactly what they're getting from the start, as she is completely open about it.

Faist's character is the only one who becomes somewhat sympathetic on a simpler level, though it's not as if he doesn't use Tashi for his own goals. Finally, O'Connor is charismatic, despite Patrick being a smug, privileged kid who knows exactly which buttons to press and when.

"Challengers" is a very good combination of sports and romantic drama with a non-linear narrative, melodramatic twists, and interesting visual solutions that are well-focused on the characters and deal more with them than with tennis.