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'Challengers' Review: Tennis Has Never Been This Sexy



Challengers
Image courtesy of Skinned Mink (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Tennis has never been this sexy. Challengers, the new film by Luca Guadagnino, ducks and weaves through lusting gazes, homoerotic rivalries, and spandex success stories to unpick the knotted tensions behind one seemingly innocuous tennis match. It is totally engrossing, configuring the simple back and forth of a tennis rally into a supersonic release of sexual tension. Perhaps the biggest testament to the success of Challengers is that it made me briefly consider trying sports again, although this was quickly remedied by reason. The point remains, that Challengers is so captivating that anyone can pick up and play with this film.


The film begins at a Challenger event, a low-stakes game at a country club sponsored by a tyre manufacturer. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is more to this little league tourney than meets the eye. The two competitors are professional tennis player Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and down-on-his-luck ace Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), both watched over by Art’s wife and coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). She has booked this game as an easy win, a refresher for Art whose game has recently dipped below sub-par. However, as the game progresses, the professional and sexual history tying these three characters together dilates the white-lined boundaries on the court, showing that this game is about far more than just tennis.


When the trailer for Challengers came out, the internet could hardly contain itself. The idea of a love triangle headed by Zendaya, currently at the peak of Mount Stardom, seemed to force users into a state of Twitter/X-based rapture. The film does not disappoint because, first and foremost, Challengers is sexy. This is no surprise coming from Guadagnino who has previously eroticised cannibalism and peaches, although tennis is arguably his trickiest sexual conquest yet. But it isn’t the sport, nor is it the sex scenes or even the actors, who primarily exert sexiness. Instead, it is sourced from the tensions between the characters, with Art, Patrick, and Tashi all channelling surging beams of egotism, jealousy, and desire into one another. The viral scene in the motel room where Tashi is caught between the two men is sexy not because of the competition the audience can see on screen. It is sexy because of the vying emotions between the three which cannot be seen.


Once these unseen channels of eroticism have been tapped into, it is hard to pull your eyes away from the screen. Despite its relatively long runtime of 131 minutes, Challengers passes by as fast as a whizzing tennis ball. By match point, most viewers will find themselves echoing the punters in the stands who precisely move their heads back and forth, glued to the action. It barely needs to be said that this is partly thanks to the brilliant performances of Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist. Zendaya manages to divert the intensity of Tashi into tiny facial movements, with this exploding into fierce passion at moments of high emotion. Meanwhile, O’Conner and Faist perfectly meld boyish affection with homoerotic desire, telling the history of these once close friends in instinctive insults and play-fighting.


One initially distracting feature is the heavy product placement in this film. Granted, tennis has as much to do with advertising as it does athleticism. Nevertheless, non-sporty brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Coca-Cola aggressively nudge their way onto the screen. However, while this is typically a cardinal sin of moviemaking, the world of Challengers mirrors the synthetic desire hoarded in its abundant logos. Vapid hotel rooms, narcissistic sports advertising, and the employment of commodities as tools of desire comprise the fabric of Challengers, with the obtuse produce placement being another strand in this tapestry.


Admittedly, the film drags just a hair towards the end, right where it needs to be at its tightest. But at this point it doesn’t matter, for the tensions withheld in each character have now fully spilt onto the screen, drowning the viewer as if they stood upon the sweaty brows of Art and Patrick. Challengers is sexy, thrilling, and totally engrossing. By the end, you will want to go swing a racket around like a lunatic, although one’s own discretion is advised. Who knew that tennis could ever feel this good?


 

Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor

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