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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Photograph: Warner Bros.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Zendaya is electrifying in a tennis flick that mixes volleys and viciousness

The kind of thirsty even a bucket of Gatorade can’t help with, this wildly enjoyable tennis movie works on the sensible basis that if you take three smokeshow actors, stick them in shorts, bathe them in sweat and pheromones and have them run rings around each other in a fashion even Jules and Jim might blanch at, you might be onto something. 

It helps, of course, to have Luca Guadagino calling the shots. The Italian auteur delivers the equivalent of two terrific movies in one here. The first, a sports movie that will satisfy tennis fans in a way that, say, Wimbledon didn’t, examines the pressures of life as an elite athlete. The second, the one that draws you in deepest, is a satisfyingly murky relationship drama where viciousness and homoerotism bubble away beneath a stylish surface.

Challengers opens with a seemingly common-or-garden tournament final in 2019 – a small-town challenger event where journeyman pros battle it out for $7000 prize money and a shot at US Open qualification. 

On opposite sides of the net are Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig and Mike Faist’s Art Donaldson. Watching on is Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan, a former wunderkind forced to retire by a knee injury.

Then Justin Kuritzkes’s cleverly constructed screenplay introduces two timelines in flashback: the week leading up to the match and 13 years previously with the youthful trio all tennis hopefuls at college. And every time it heads back to the court, the match has taken on new significance.

It’s a tennis love triangle with as many double crosses as double faults

Art is a superstar tired of the aggregation of marginal gains – endless green juices, physio, hotel rooms – required to win a Grand Slam. Tashi, his wife and coach, is still pouring some of her own frustrated ambitions into him. She’s signed him up for this tournament as a confidence builder. But does she know that the skint and struggling Patrick, her ex and Art’s now-estranged bestie, will be competing? 

If the answer wasn’t ‘hell yes’, Challengers wouldn’t be the same movie. Almost noirish in its lack of sentimentality, it’s a courtside love triangle with as many double crosses as double faults. The trio’s gentler natures have long since been beaten out of them by the grind of ‘making it’. Only a queer reading of the film, in which Patrick and Art’s early relationship is more than a bromance, would find something pure in this toxic ménage à trois.

If the story construction is intricate, the tennis is ferocious. Guadagnino and his Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom find new ways to plunge you into the match, with a fast-moving camera, kinetic aerial shots, even the odd GoPro rally. You don’t need 3D to feel the urge to duck as balls wizz past.  

Zendaya is electrifying, both on court (she spent three months training with Brad Gilbert as prep) and off it, with O’Connor and West Side Story’s Faist both good as the one-time ‘fire and ice’ doubles partners who lust after her. Props, too, to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s pulsing score, a wild-eyed slab of electronica. It amps up the stakes perfectly in a film that will leave you almost as breathless as its players.

In cinemas worldwide Apr 26.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Luca Guadagnino
  • Screenwriter:Justin Kuritzkes
  • Cast:
    • Zendaya
    • Mike Faist
    • Josh O'Connor
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