Game On: Zendaya & Co. Reveal Why “Challengers” Will Be Your New Obsession

From the warm embrace of Call Me By Your Name to the eerie thrill of Bones and All, Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Challengers, is a culmination of the better parts of all of his earlier work, ending in an explosive (and sweaty) finale.

The film centers on a love triangle, set in the world of high-stakes tennis matches, with three characters who once, at the height of their careers, cared deeply for their sport and each other and have now lost their love not only for their sport but for life.

“I couldn’t define what kind of movie it was,” said Zendaya at a recent press conference, explaining what drew her to the project. “Like, it was funny…but I wouldn’t say it was a comedy. But there was drama. But I wouldn’t say it was just a drama. And it had tennis, but it wasn’t like a sports movie. I think that feeling that it was kind of just like everything at once in this beautiful way was terrifying but equally exhilarating and exciting.”

Zendaya as Tashi in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures© 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A movie that’s somehow completely about tennis and simultaneously not at all about tennis can best be summarized in a short argument in the film where Patrick (Josh O’Connor) asks Tashi (Zendaya), “Are we still talking about tennis?” And she replies, “We’re always talking about tennis.”

“It is very rare that commercial movies are about adult relationships and about sex. And I was sick of it,” said producer Amy Pascal. “So, I thought it was high time that people kiss in movies and more.”


But for a film with a lot of sex scenes, there is very little love. Guadagnino uses sex in the film the same way the characters use it on each other — short, passionate bursts, always teasing, but never fully allowing the audience — or the characters — to reach completion. In both their sex lives and in tennis, they are never fulfilled.

“The thing that really stuck out with me about the character [Art Donaldson] was this idea of a person, this craftsman, who’s fallen out of love with his craft,” said Mike Faist of his character, Art.  “And he’s so desperately trying to kind of get back to that place of purity.”

Challengers follows Tashi, Patrick, and Art through their teenage youth, at the peak of their tennis careers, all the way through adulthood, when life has stopped acting in their favor.


In a movie where the characters always say the opposite of what they mean and mean the opposite of what they say, the tennis metaphor is almost too perfect. In tennis, whoever serves has the upper hand, and in the film, the three leads are desperately trying to hold their serve.

But what makes this film are the words left unsaid — told through the subtle body language. The stolen glances, racket swivels, head tilts.

Writer Justin Kuritzkes said the idea for the script came to him from watching Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka’s 2018 US Open match.

“There was this very controversial call from the umpire where he accused Serena Williams of receiving coaching from the sidelines,” Kuritzkes said. “And I had never heard of this rule… But immediately, this struck me as this intensely cinematic situation where you’re all alone on your side of the court, and there’s this one other person in this massive tennis stadium who cares as much about what happens to you as you do. But you can’t talk to them. And for whatever reason, it just clicked in my mind; well, what if you really needed to talk about something? And what if it was something beyond tennis?”


Challengers jumps between the past and present throughout the film, leading up to the pivotal match and final scene between Art and Patrick, that is told almost entirely without dialogue.

“The final moment had to be basically a silent sequence, or non-dialogue sequence, that was going to be very clear to everyone in the audience to understand the emotional ramp-up that had to be built there,” Guadagnino said. “So it took a long time. I think that sequence, the last 10 minutes, took us eight days to shoot.”

While the film centers around a love triangle, it’s Zendaya’s performance as Tashi Duncan that steals the show. She is the axis that the two boys revolve around (whether they want to admit it or not). Zendaya’s performance is so nuanced and compelling that it leaves viewers wanting more.

“She scared the shit out of me,” Zendaya laughed. 


None of the characters in this film are particularly likable — which is precisely why we like them. They feel messy, they feel emotional and they feel real. Zendaya said that she thinks maybe audiences are so enamored with Tashi because it’s “refreshing” that she’s unlikeable.

“It’s a female character that doesn’t have to be likable and doesn’t care about you liking her,” Zendaya said. “And doesn’t ask for forgiveness. And I think that that is probably refreshing, maybe, to some people? And I understand that. And that was refreshing to me when I read her. And that was why I wanted to play her.”

Challengers is in theaters now.

Featured image: (L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Challengers opens in theaters on Friday, April, 26.


Andria Moore

Andria is a freelance entertainment and digital culture reporter based in DC. She is a regular contributor for BuzzFeed and Insider, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Lily, and Modern Luxury Magazines.