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‘Challengers’ Is a Scorching Grand Slam: Zendaya is Especially Marvelous

Game, Set, Match: ‘Challengers’ Delivers a Masterful Match of Emotions and Ambition.

challengers review
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Tennis, as Zendaya’s character, Tashi, explains, is a relationship. Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, set in the high-stakes world of professional tennis, looks at one relationship, in particular, on and off the court. It’s a relationship between former best friends and the girl who came between them. Challengers non-linear story revolves around a final matchup between the characters, with the spectators, much like the audience, not initially aware of the 13-year relationship that’s fuelling the ferocity of the match. What’s explored is a complex love triangle full of desire, ambition, and betrayal, delivering pulse-pounding action on the court and palpable tension off the court.

The Challengers Review

Challengers Zendaya
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

The ball drops and is met with swings packed with force and history. It’s a head-to-head battle for the woman sitting at the center of the crowd. This is a match Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) have partaken in before.

Thirteen years prior, after a successful doubles win at the US Open, the childhood best friends meet another successful young player in the tennis world, Tashi. In the present, she can no longer play, having retired early from a knee injury. Now, she coaches Art, her husband, who’s no longer at the top of his game. It’s a relationship that was born of animosity and that continues to fester as Art’s failure reminds her of her own. She wants to win. It’s always been her game and her rules – and Art and Patrick know them well. 

“You need to start winning,” she tells Art. So, she signs him up for a second-tier Challenger Tour. With a group of lower-ranked players, the challenge seems to be easy…until Patrick is on the other side of Art’s serve.

Justin Kuritzkes’s story volleys back and forth through time to create a complete picture of this complicated threesome. It shows how Art and Patrick’s relationship went from brotherhood to one spiked by jealousy, their dynamic shifting with the introduction of Tashi. A match of another kind forms as they battle on and off the court for the affection of this tennis superstar, resulting in an incredible final set and one of the best third acts of the year. Tashi may hold all the cards and power throughout, but who will be the real winner of this game?

What’s immediately noticeable about Challengers is how immersive its tennis scenes are. They are shot and edited expertly to highlight every angle of the game and every drip of sweat. The ball is the camera at one point, getting bounced around between Art and Patrick. In other sequences, we are given a first-person view. These scenes are as exhilarating and hot as the much-discussed makeouts. Every moment of adrenaline is matched by a brilliant Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score. The film’s soundscape is just as thrilling as the onscreen action, with techno and electronic beats that drive the story, even in its more subdued and intimate moments, and create a pulsating effect, like rackets being slammed in frustration. 

Challengers Review
Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

The sizzling emotion at Challengers’ core wouldn’t have been captured with such magnetism if it weren’t for the performances of the film’s triple threat. This group of real superstars captures the excitement of success, the toxicity of romance, and crushing defeat in ways that are just as engaging and electric as the craftsmanship behind the tennis matches. Their banter, sexual or not, hits like a skilled backhand; Kuritzkes’s script is something to marvel at. Zendaya, in her first leading film role, is especially marvelous. You can feel each character mature over the film’s timeline, but Zendaya transforms with commanding strength and poise. She’s born to be a leading lady. 

Like any great tennis match, Challengers keeps you transfixed, delivering the maximum force of a serve needed to hit an ace. It’s one of the year’s best.

Grade: A


Challengers

Challengers

Tennis player turned coach Tashi has taken her husband, Art, and transformed him into a world-famous Grand Slam champion. To jolt him out of his recent losing streak, she signs him up for a "Challenger" event — close to the lowest level of pro tournament — where he finds himself standing across the net from his former best friend and Tashi's former boyfriend.

Release Date: April 26, 2024

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Cast: Zendaya , Josh O'Connor , Mike Faist

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