Review | Challengers

Zendaya dominates Luca Guadagnino’s sultry tale as a tennis femme fatale

Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers
Zendaya (Tashi Donaldson) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) in Challengers | © 2023. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Tennis is having a bit of a mainstream moment with the Oscar-nominated King Richard and Netflix series Break Point attracting plenty of attention in recent years.

Continuing this trend is Challengers, the new Zendaya vehicle which features the global superstar as Tashi Donaldson, a promising player who turns to coaching after a serious knee injury in college. But of course that’s only part of the story.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name), the film commences with Donaldson watching from the stands as two players, Art (her husband) and Patrick Zweig (her former lover), compete in a bruising singles encounter at a Challenger event in New York. Propelled by a pulsing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, we quickly learn that these three have a complex history together beyond the lines.

The struggles of life on the tennis circuit have been accentuated for the three protagonists due to their addictively toxic bonds. Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) is the unmotivated major winner, attempting one last great run before he hangs up the racquet for good. Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) is Art’s talented friend from their junior days, who never really made it at the top level and struggles week-to-week at low level events. Meanwhile, Tashi commands centre court as the sporting femme fatale who has fostered both obsession, and division, in the two men.

As tennis is a more pacified alternative to boxing, there have been a number of films that have used the sport as a primary, or incidental, part of the narrative.

Two of the finest came from Alfred Hitchcock with his thrillers Strangers on a Train (1951) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Farley Granger plays a tennis pro caught up in murder in the former, while the smooth, ex-professional Ray Milland concocts a scheme to do in his wife for money in the latter.

Since those classics, we’ve had some well received films such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Match Point (2005) and Battle of the Sexes (2017). I was quite impressed with Borg vs McEnroe (2017) but the less said about Wimbledon (2004), with Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, the better.

While many of those films portrayed tennis as a traditional sport that inhabits a staid environment, Challengers is a very different beast. This is a film that oozes manipulation, betrayal, shattered dreams, success and carnal passions. The sweat quite literally drips onto the camera lens at one point.

Zweig, played by O’Connor from The Crown, is probably the most convincing character in the film. A junior player of the usual wild ambition, he never quite made the top level of the tour and finds himself searching for purpose on the fringes of grand slams and ATP events. Sadly, there are plenty of those souls across the tours in a sport where only the elite make hay.

Zweig’s pain is compounded by his envy for the grand slam success of his oldest friend Art, who I think is the least compelling of the leads. For a man who only needs a US Open title to complete the career grand slam, Donaldson comes across as distinctly ordinary and bereft of the focus and charisma that one would usually expect from a player of that distinction.

As you might expect from a film that she also produced, Zendaya dominates the action both on and off court. The 27-year-old has great fun as a temptress who harbours the anger of an unfulfilled playing career and takes it out on the “little white boys” in her orbit. Amidst the emotional wreckage that Tashi fuels, she also provides some decent insight into the game itself.

Early on, Tashi recalls her victory in a match and decries Patrick’s simplistic approach to the sport. “You’re not a tennis player’, she explains. “You don’t know what tennis is. It’s a relationship…For about 15 seconds there, we were actually playing tennis. We understood each other completely. So did everyone watching…We went somewhere really beautiful together.” Anyone who has grown up watching the sport’s greatest rivalries, notably Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal, can only concur with that dialogue.

In terms of realism, Challengers does a pretty good job of showing the various strata of the tennis tour and for the most part, portrays the imagined action well. This is presumably thanks to the input of Brad and Kim Gilbert, who created rally plans and advised the leads on realistic movement during production. While Tashi and Patric look like your standard powerful baseliners, Art’s style is highly influenced by Federer with his elegant one-handed backhand and classic whites.

An area where I think the film loses its footing at times is the cinematography. While I commend Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for exploring every imaginable angle for a tennis rally, the shots from the vantage point of the ball or the players often come across as a blurry mess.

Overall, Challengers is an enjoyable, sexually-charged production that contains a fairly realistic depiction of life on the tennis tour that’s infused with the emotional foibles of its star trio. However, despite the adrenaline shot it provides, I’m not sure that there is sufficient depth to merit repeat viewings and awards consideration.

In short, it’s an entertaining three-setter rather than a five-set classic.