Challengers movie review: Zendaya excels as tennis prodigy in Luca Guadagnino’s sexy romantic drama

3.5/5 stars

Luca Guadagnino swaps cannibals for tennis balls in Challengers, a breezy romantic drama starring Zendaya. The Italian director goes from his first American film, 2022’s Bones and All, directly into his second, although the two could not be more different.

While the first was grimy and grisly, this is sexy and stormy, and never more so than in an early scene in which Zendaya’s college-level tennis prodigy Tashi has two fellow male players on the bed either side of her – friends and doubles partners Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor).

The scene crackles with energy and fizzing dialogue from screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes. “Aren’t you everybody’s type?” purrs Art, as both he and Patrick scramble to win her affections.

Soon, professional ambitions and personal rivalries kick in, and the narrative whips back and forth through time – from these friendly early encounters to years later, when Art and Tashi are now married, with a young daughter named Lily.

She is a successful coach while he is looking to complete a career grand slam by winning the US Open.

Yet as the story unfolds, Art’s dwindling interest in competitive tennis, coupled with his fragile relationship with Tashi, leads to trouble in paradise.

Mike Faist (left) as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in a still from Challengers. Photo: Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Things get even more complicated when she urges him to enter a low-key tournament in New Rochelle – only to find that the down-on-his-luck Patrick is playing there. History resurfaces, as Guadagnino looks to play out a triangular relationship and all the messiness that it entails.

Both O’Connor, the British actor who played the young Prince Charles in The Crown, and Faist – who made a real splash in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story – are ace as the two testosterone-driven rivals. “It’s about winning – and I do. A lot,” mutters Art.
Zendaya as Tashi in a still from Challengers. Photo: Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Guadagnino presents the tennis sequences in a vibrant manner. One scene features the camera seemingly attached to the ball as it is hit back and forth over the net, a dizzying spectacle.

It is a shame how overstretched the final act feels, the tension draining from Art and Patrick’s final courtside battle.

Still, Hollywood rarely puts tennis in the spotlight – and there’s something thrilling about a deep dive into this glamorous world, all wrapped up in a spicy love story.

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