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“Challengers”: a tennis film not quite about tennis

Athena Sandrini
“Challengers” took place both on and off the tennis court with Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor.

“Challengers,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, is a film about both the sport of tennis and the extreme drama behind it. Tashi Duncan, played by Emmy Award-winner Zendaya, is an upcoming tennis star until she injures her knee and is never the same. Both Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig, famous tennis duo “Fire and Ice,” are in awe of Tashi and compete for her affection in a tennis match against each other when they are teens. 

Parallel to this teenage angst, the pair face off again in a Challenger tennis match after over a decade estranged. The film continues moving through timelines while slowly explaining the situation to the audience, ending with a final tennis sequence that, according to Guadagnino, took eight days to shoot. 

Zendaya is not the only big name within the cast. Art Donaldson is played by Mike Faist from “West Side Story” and Josh O’Connor from “The Crown” plays Patrick Zweig. The Carroll News virtually attended a Zoom press conference on April 20 with the cast, director, producer, and writer of “Challengers.” At this conference, all of the actors praised the movie and its immediate pull on them as actors. 

Faist mentioned that his character, Art, stood out to him because Art was falling out of love with his craft, tennis, and yet was trying desperately to breathe life back into his career. O’Connor at first thought Patrick was “beyond [his] reach” as an actor due to his character’s extreme level of confidence, but O’Connor still auditioned and felt that it was “such an honor and a privilege” to work alongside all of the panelists. Amy Pascal, a producer on the film, said that when she pitched the story she promised that Zendaya would do the film to get others on board.

After receiving quick approval of the pitched story, they all got to work. Zendaya felt that Tashi, Art and Patrick were all complicated characters within a film that she couldn’t quite define. She mentioned that the film is “everything at once in this beautiful way” and her perception of the characters is forever changing. Every time she witnesses the film, she is “constantly living with them and learning from them.”

According to all of the panelists, “Challengers” was a difficult film to make due to several different physical challenges. Zendaya had trouble picking up the art of tennis and used her experience as a dancer to develop these skills. The three main actors all participated in a six-week “summer camp,” as Zendaya defined it, to obtain the necessary skills to perform tennis sequences on screen. 

After attending the conference, attendees had a newfound appreciation for the film. Although it is a beautiful film, the plot felt unexpected and strange. After watching the trailer and some promotional videos, viewers could presume it will be an inspiring tennis film about Tashi rising out of the ashes and choosing who to coach, Art or Patrick, based on their skill and effort. 

However, the film was much more about the relationships between Tashi, Art and Patrick without allowing for much of the tennis aspect to come through in ways the trailers seemed to reflect. At times, the plot was messy, the tennis match and the relationship dynamics were muddled, and the audience never received a true conclusion of the plot and relationships by the time the credits began. 

Cinematically, the film was wonderfully done and the actors did a fantastic job in each of their roles. Both Tashi and Patrick were more engrossed in the world of tennis and less morally clean, whereas Art was an intensely good person especially as he grew older and slowly lost his desire to be a tennis star. 

The film has a confusing, yet interesting plot, but audiences could have trouble trying to figure it out enough to fully enjoy it. If there was more of an explanation toward the end or slightly less drama throughout, audiences could easily appreciate the other aspects of the film. Through its complexity, it is worth the watch if you have been waiting for a sports film that includes a lot of drama and a star-studded cast. 

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About the Contributor
Anna Maxwell
Anna Maxwell, Arts and Life Editor
Anna Maxwell is the Arts and Life Editor for the Carroll News from Ashtabula, Ohio. She is a Freshman at John Carroll University who is an Undecided major. Anna has been writing for the Carroll News since the fall of 2023! In addition to writing for the Carroll News, she is also an Honors student here at John Carroll, and she is excited to continue writing in the years to come! When not writing, Anna can be found reading a new book, or binge-watching her favorite Netflix shows! She can also be found spending time with her friends and participating in events around campus! In the future, Anna aspires to become a writer of fiction novels, and also an editor for a well-known publishing company! To contact Anna, email her at [email protected].

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