It’s love all for Luca Guadagnino’s sexy tennis drama starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist


Source: Warner Bros Pictures


Dir: Luca Guadagnino. US. 2024. 131mins

A scintillating romantic triangle paired with a gripping sports drama, Challengers finds Luca Guadagnino in crowd-pleasing mode, delivering his most purely entertaining film. As is often the case with the Italian director’s pictures, the fickleness of love is at the centre of this narrative, but never before has he operated with such playful showmanship as he follows the ups and down of best friends, both of whom dream of tennis glory, and the rising star they each covet. Zendaya is superb as the object of their affections, complemented by Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist as longtime buddies who have much to learn both on the court and in the bedroom. 

Zendaya has never been more commanding

Postponed from opening Venice in 2023 due to the actors strike, this sexy love story now releases in the UK and US on April 26. Tennis has not had the same box-office success as other sports films, but strong reviews and the fresh-faced cast could help lure in audiences — especially considering that Zendaya is part of the blockbuster Dune franchise.

Challengers stars Zendaya as Tashi, a one-time tennis phenom whose promising career imploded because of a gruesome knee injury. Now married to Grand Slam champion Art (Mike Faist), and serving as his exacting trainer and business partner, Tashi is concerned that her husband’s competitive fire is starting to dampen. She signs him up for a low-stakes match to help boost his confidence — only for them to run into Patrick (O’Connor), Art’s former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend, who is also entering the tournament. As the two men face off on the court, Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay repeatedly flashes back to earlier phases in their complicated relationship, filling in the gaps to explain precisely how they arrived at this moment.

Although probably best known for the melancholy arthouse romances I Am Love and Call Me By Your NameGuadagnino has occasionally dabbled in genre fare, whether it be A Bigger Splash, Suspiria or Bones And All. In comparison to those latter pictures, Challengers proves to be more accomplished while simultaneously being less sombre, although the director remains invested in characters who are at the mercy of their hearts. Working with regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who gives the story a lived-in, everyday beauty, Guadagnino crafts a juicy tale full of twists and turns.

Zendaya has never been more commanding than as this driven athlete-turned-coach, someone who from a young age knew what she wanted and would not let distractions like love get in her way. The characters effortlessly move from being teenagers in flashbacks to their early 30s in the present day, but it’s Tashi who is the most inscrutable no matter the time period. Zendaya plays her with confidence as a character who attracts both Patrick and Art not just because of her athletic prowess but also her assertiveness.

Their first meeting, 13 years ago, is shot in an electric single take, establishing the power dynamics that will continue throughout the story, often placing Tashi in the role of the alpha who dictates the rules of engagement. Challengers volleys back and forth between different time periods, illustrating how her relationship with Patrick began and ended, and how she ultimately chose Art as her husband. But nothing is ever simple between these three — defiantly her own person, Tashi never truly “belongs” to either man — and shifting desires will create compelling complications. 

The tennis sequences are dynamically rendered, with editor Marco Costa giving the scenes a feverish intensity, the players’ anguish, strength and exhaustion rippling through each frame. Ingeniuously, Guadagnino strips away the sport’s hushed solemnity by drafting Bones And All composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to concoct a techno-heavy score that lends the matches a dance-party urgency that is both witty and invigorating. The director pushes the gambit even further, also incorporating the uptempo tracks in dialogue scenes between Patrick and Art, their fiery showdowns not just taking place on the court.

Losing none of his ability to bring sweaty sensuality to the proceedings, Guadagnino emphasises his actors’ toned bodies and alluring looks, their sex drives almost as powerful as their forehand smashes. O’Connor and Faist capably convey young men bonded by their passion for tennis, only for that bond to be tested by their shared lust for Tashi. While Patrick might be the traditional “bad boy” — with Art more sweet and sensitive — O’Connor and Faist upend the potential stereotypes, resulting in two worthy, fascinatingly flawed suitors for the all-business Tashi. 

Challengers builds to the championship match between the two men, but in keeping with this film’s refusal to follow sports-movie formula, Guadagnino arrives at an ending that surprises while staying true to the three fierce competitors. The old joke goes that love means nothing in tennis — but in Guadagnino’s world, it means everything.

Production companies: Why Are You Acting?, Frenesy Films, Pascal Pictures

US distribution: Amazon MGM Studios/International distribution: Warner Bros.

Producers: Amy Pascal, Luca Guadagnino, Zendaya, Rachel O’Connor

Screenplay: Justin Kuritzkes

Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Production design: Merissa Lombardo

Editing: Marco Costa

Music: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Main cast: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist