Tennis, anyone?

Love-triangle sports drama ‘Challengers’ serves up sexy fun

Left to right: Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers. Courtesy: Amazon / MGM Studios

Within every game, there’s a second game playing out inside the first. We can’t always see it, but it’s often much more significant than the one we’re watching.

This is true regardless of your level of involvement with any given sport, but let’s say you’re the type who skips the regular season and the playoffs and only tunes into the finals. All you see are players competing for a trophy and nothing more. What you do not see — cannot see — are the players’ pasts, individually and collectively, the years spent in juniors, on the college circuit, in qualifying matches and minor tournaments across the globe and throughout the calendar. You do not see the drama that unfolds in the locker rooms, the times they’ve shared cramped hotel rooms on tour and sat next to each other on the bus. All you see is a ball traveling back and forth. All they see is a lifetime.

Challengers, the latest from director Luca Guadagnino, has so much fun with that lifetime that there’s a good chance you’ll read far too much into the next tennis match after watching this movie.

The story is framed by a Challenger Tour final in New Rochelle, New York — which isn’t geographically far from Flushing, Queens, where the U.S. Open takes place, but feels metaphorically out of reach — with Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) trading points and spraying sweat in the warm summer sun. For everyone in the crowd, it’s one hell of a match, one that tips back and forth in favor of the other. But only one in the crowd knows what’s really happening here: Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), Art’s wife and Patrick’s former lover.

From this meeting in 2019 New Rochelle, Guadagnino and writer Justin Kuritzkes bounce freely in chronology from now to 13 years prior, to seven months later, to minutes before, to three weeks ago. From New Rochelle to Atlanta to Stanford — the setting and era may change, but the dynamic does not. Art and Patrick are close, and Tashi is the woman who comes between them. You’ve probably seen that story before: two men who can only love and hate each other through the woman who shares their lives. 

But here, Tashi is more instigator than connector, a woman with her own desires and disappointments to navigate. She’s manipulative, sure, but so are Art and Patrick. Winning a tennis match isn’t just about putting the ball past your opponent. It’s about taking them off their line, pulling them from the spot they want to be and making them play the game you want to play. There’s an art form to manipulation, and these three are artists.

What a nifty little construction Challengers employs: Three sets to a match, three acts to a story, three players in this one. In 2019, Art is the tennis prodigy who’s made good, won three of the four majors and is getting ready to retire once he completes the career slam. Patrick might be the better player, but he never quite figured out how to play the greater game and has been languishing in smaller tournaments with low payouts and little glory. Tashi was the best of the trio, but an injury sidelined her playing career and forced her to switch to coaching.

Recounting it like that makes it all sound so standard. Challengers is not. Guadagnino and Kuritzkes giddily toy with convention while encouraging a sexual current to charge the narrative. Then there are the matches, captured by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, sometimes from above, sometimes from the player’s point of view — herky-jerky movements full of energy — and sometimes from the ball’s perspective as it goes hurtling back and forth, smashing into rackets and crashing into nets. The editing from Marco Costa is a master class of eye lines and triangulation, and the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is one of the few from the duo that doesn’t just ping ethereally in the background but drives the characters with a loud, pulsating force. Everything here feels calibrated for fun.

If there is a misstep, it is in Challengers’s climatic finish, where streams of sweat pour off Art and Patrick in seductive slow motion as if Gudaginino still wants to delay gratification after two hours of basking in the beauty of these young and fit bodies, their sensual pull to one another and their constant jockeying to be on top. That might have worked in a more cloistered movie, but here, it just feels like overkill — especially after that scene between Art and Patrick in the sauna.

ON SCREEN: Challengers opens in theaters on April 26.


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