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My Tryst with Tennis: 'Challengers'

Updated: 2 days ago

Challengers Zendaya illustration

If everyone you know has suddenly acquired a tennis racket, just know that Challengers is to blame. The newest on my list of films I shouldn’t have invited my mother to watch with me, Luca Guadagno’s romp into the scandalous lives of oh-so-very sexy tennis players is a feat of furious, unbridled passion, &, if your mom’s not along, a healthy dose of salacious fun.

The film follows lifelong friends & tennis prodigies Patrick Zweig (played by Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mark Faist) in the rubble of their relationship, damaged in the wake of their mutual attraction to fellow player Tashi Duncan (the incomparable Zendaya). We meet Art & Tashi as a married couple: Tashi has since retired due to a career-ending injury, while Art is down on his luck & in need of one last good season before retiring to his life of wealth & leisure. Tashi (Art’s coach & the driving force preventing him from all-out retirement) enters him into a Challengers match, where he ends up playing in the final round against Patrick. Do not be fooled, however, dear reader — this is not a tried-&-typical tale of brothers torn apart by a woman. Tashi is no mere passive siren overlooking the Long Island Sound in a shimmering blue dress à la Daisy Buchanan, quietly leading mortals to their doom, she is much more: she is beautiful & perhaps a little dangerous, yes, but also cutthroat & active in the idiom of modern womanhood. The three characters complete each other in ways that are sometimes symbiotic & other times parasitic, & their love triangle is active on all three sides. Each character shifts swiftly between the role of object, pursuant, & imitation of desire. Yes, Patrick & Art are each ostensibly chasing Tashi, but there is an element of passion & desire between the two men equally as promising & exciting in romantic tension as either’s relationship with Tashi.

In fact, Tashi often slips in & out of the triangle. Though she is an object of desire at face value, her true allegiance is to tennis. Like Tracy Austin, the real-life tennis star so admired by David Foster Wallace who retired at a young age after achieving great heights, Tashi’s relationship with the game is a tragic one: her career was halted prematurely by a knee injury, partially fueled by an argument earlier in the day with her then-boyfriend Patrick. Like so many young pro athletes, the game was Tashi’s whole life, her way out of an impoverished childhood, & now? She’s left to merely watch on as other players compete in the thing that once lit a fire under her. The men often feel more like tools for her to accomplish a greater goal of witnessing a great game. These moments where Tashi changes from participant to voyeur are strangely intriguing, as the sense of desire from the triangle never ceases: was she the true object of desire, or merely a conduit for the homoerotic tensions between Art & Patrick?

All of these complexities frequently boil over — this film is swift & sharp, features which are complemented by another exceptional Ross and Reznor score & cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s snappy & violent visual style. At times the music overwhelms the conversations happening on screen, forcing the viewer to focus in on the pure, raw passion driving the three of them toward each other time & again. Sweeping storms punctuate Tashi & Patrick’s extramarital dalliances & overwhelming even the controlled & stoic Tashi. Was their desire ever something that could be suppressed in favor of the calm of a normal life, or is their connection as uncontrollable & ferocious as the wind? The tennis scenes between Art & Patrick are fierce & sweaty: a grunting, panting mess of years of unresolved tension. Early in the film, Tashi tells the two men that tennis is not a game, but a relationship, & theirs is a storied one, which is apparent even before Patrick appears onscreen.

Challengers went in with a bang & out with a bang. Though a game of tennis necessitates a winner, I walked out of the film feeling a sort of uneasiness with how it all ended. Everybody lost in their own way, & yet all three were reinvigorated, in their own selfish ways. But how is their romance, their game-beyond-the-game, ever meant to end? There is no clear resolution, no winners — just mutually destructive forces ebbing & flowing back toward & away from each other & inevitably colliding & exploding. Then again, what’s the point of winning if you weren’t having fun?

—Zara Roy


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