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9 May 2024

What Challengers understands about tennis

This is more than a sports movie – but it's also a film that grasps how uniquely competitive the tennis world is.

By Sarah Manavis

During my decade-long tennis career – in which I invested hours every day in playing, training, and travelling across my home state of Ohio for tournaments and camps; dedicating my whole life and personhood to become a professional in the sport – I was shadowed by one girl, exactly my age, who I met at my first-ever practise court around six years old. This girl (we can call her Molly) went to an expensive private school across town and looked like a tennis player. She was lithe and toned with long legs and surreally long arms. At first, she was better than me. I was shorter, curvier, lacking natural athleticism and more easily rattled. From practise matches after school to formal tournament games, I could never come close to beating her. And yet I was obsessed by the idea of it.

For most of that decade, this idea was a fantasy. But after nine years of losing to her, the gap between us closed. In my final season, in one of my final matches, in a final tie-break set – watched intently by both of our teams – I beat her. The glow of winning was short-lived: I had reached the outer limits of my abilities and six months later, I quit tennis forever. Molly would go on to get a tennis scholarship at a prestigious university, but she also quit the sport before graduating. Last I checked, she was working in corporate communications in the American south-west. It may well be that I was never Molly’s great rival; someone else might have occupied that rarefied space in her mind. But I know we both spent a lot of our parents’ money – and lost years of our youth – to a sport we ultimately couldn’t hack.

I couldn’t get Molly out of my head when watching Luca Guadagnino’s film Challengers, a drama about three tennis players – two professionals, and one who should have been more successful than either of them – and their (sexually charged) interpersonal dynamics. Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist) are childhood friends who both turned pro after attending a formal tennis school together, the latter reaching global fame as the former’s career barely took off. Art’s wife Tashi (Zendaya) was on track to be the real star of the trio but was forced to quit following a knee injury during a match at university, instead becoming Art’s coach and manager. The film is two hours of all three players deliberately pressing on each other’s weaknesses and cyclically succumbing to each other’s strengths, while fully aware of the mental block they have when it comes to each another.

The sex – or the threat of sex – has been the dominant talking point about the film. During much of the press tour, the lead actors have emphasised that while this is a movie about tennis, it’s also not really about tennis at all: it’s about three people locked in a competitive, erotically charged dynamic. While this may be true, tennis is the only backdrop – not just in sport, but any cultural institution in existence – that inherently breeds this single-minded self-obsession and obsessive focus on another single individual sustained over years, if not entire careers.

What makes tennis a uniquely fascinating sport is the solitude of the singles game. You have coaches, practise partners and peers – but on the court, you are your own team. This extends to a fixation on your opponents – and though you may have sets of rivals, even teams of rivals, your nemesis is just that one human being. At every age and every level, everyone striving to reach professional status has a Molly.

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You spend years picking apart and critiquing their game. At times you can’t help but masochistically admire it. You know them intimately, in a way you may not know even your closest friends. Over time, you also learn how the pair of you fit together, like two cogs. And even with all of this awareness, you may still fail to overcome the foundational psychological relationship you built in the early years of play – be it always missing your first serve, sending the ball too wide, or losing, even if you’re the better player.

This fundamental reality of what Tashi calls the “relationship” in tennis is what drives the suffocating exchanges in Challengers. While you get the sense that Art, Patrick and Tashi all understand how they work together and the way they push each other’s buttons, they can’t break out of their dynamics, loathing how it makes them act in ways they wish they could resist. The importance of the mental game is evident in Challengers. The American former world number four Brad Gilbert – who authored the strategy bible Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis 30 years ago – was a consultant on set and trained the three lead actors for three months before filming. While he guided scenes of impressively authentic faux-gameplay, you can’t help but think he was selected precisely because of his notoriety for teaching millions of tennis players about these psychological blocks. He is an expert not on how to be technically better than your opponent, but how to press on their flaws so that they crack, sometimes despite your relative lack of talent.

But what drives the real psychological drama of Challengers is the injury that shapes Tashi’s character, showing us a person more common than any other in the tennis world but rarely ever seen on screen: the nearly-was; the almost-star. The sport, arguably more prolifically than any other, is a graveyard of once-destined professionals who devoted their lives to becoming the best, putting tennis before education, friends or any semblance of self, only to discover they’ll never make it. Many, like Tashi, enter an industry in which every waking moment is an opportunity to witness the glamorous, legendary life that could have been yours. For those who never fully walk away, the agony never ends.

The film’s screenwriter, Justin Kuritzkes, has said Tashi’s character was in part inspired by Roger Federer’s wife, Mirka, after watching her in the stands as her husband competed – deep into his career – in a Grand Slam final. “She looked so stressed out, every point,” he said in an interview with GQ. “I was watching her and just thinking, ‘Why are you so stressed out? You guys have all the money in the world. You’ve won 20 Grand Slams. What’s so stressful to you? It has to be something else.’” He later found out she was a rising tennis star but had to quit after an injury, and became her husband’s manager instead. After minimal digging in the tennis world you will find multiple instances of this spectator story. While Patrick and Art may be each other’s Molly, the tragedy of Tashi’s typical tennis story is the fulcrum on which Challengers pivots.

There is a reason Challengers isn’t about football stars or basketball players – or even about other singles sports, like golf. There’s a reason it doesn’t explore the rivalries and relationships between artists or CEOs. The tennis world fosters a strange, unhealthy form of competition that is hard to find anywhere else.

Challengers is much more than a sport movie, and these characters are fleshed out in greater detail than the typical relationships we see between most tennis players. But it would be wrong to say that this story isn’t about what tennis does to normal people: the ways it binds them inextricably to one another.

[See also: How to fix English cricket]

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