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Film Obsessive Breaks Down Challengers’ Take on Tennis

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.

Tennis is a great sport. Just ask Film Obsessive’s News Editor Tina Kakadelis and Publisher J Paul Johnson. Both have loved the sport for years. Only rarely, though, does the sport translate to the big screen. There have been dozens of scripted tennis films over the years and only a few truly memorable ones. With the high-profile Challengers, directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) and starring Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor, opening to great reviews (including our own Aqib Rasheed’s), there’s no time like the present to dig into the film’s tennis cred.

So, string up your sticks, lace up your kicks, and take to the court with Tina Kakadelis and J Paul Johnson as they obsess over Challengers‘ take on tennis.

Tina Kakadelis: Before we get to Challengers, Paul, how long have you been playing tennis? What is it about tennis that drew you to start and continue playing?

J Paul Johnson: I literally learned to play in a barn! I grew up on a grain farm and an aunt had converted the upper level of their barn to a makeshift wood-floor court and she taught the area kids a few basics. I never had any formal instruction but hung out at the public park courts for pickup matches, played high school and college, met my (future/present/only/longtime/cherished) wife on the courts, played tournaments and leagues for years, and then helped coach my daughter through her junior and D1 college career. I love the game’s physical and intellectual challenges and admire those who master them. I may have set down the sticks for a year or two here and there, but I’ve played regularly for over 50 years now.

When I say that out loud, I feel I should be better by now!

Playing in a barn is such a cool way to start! Should wood be a new court style??

It’d be old! That’s how Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez played on their indoor barnstorming tours in the late ’40s and ’50s! So how about you, Tina, what’s your tennis origin story?

I started playing when I was in eighth grade. My sister is a year older than me and was going off to high school summer band camp, so my mom said I needed to pick a camp too. I don’t remember how I ended up at a tennis camp, but I hated it. I did not want to go back after the first day. Then, Friday came around and I asked my mom if she could sign me up for the next week. I have no idea what changed my mind, but I’ve been playing ever since. I played all through high school and did a little college!

Do you also follow the pro tour?

I do, both men’s and women’s, and love to travel to professional tournaments. I’ve been to three of the four Grand Slams and many other events. Though I feel like I’ve lost a little of my zeal for the pro tour with Roger Federer out of the picture. Sinner and Alcaraz are developing a good rivalry with incredible matches. Are you a fan?

The Federer loss is still too soon. Watching Rafael Nadal play this year has been tough, but he’s a favorite of mine. I’ve started to pay more attention to the pro tour, but only specific players. I like Swiatek, Alcaraz, Sakkari, Sinner, and Kasatkina. I’m also really enjoying Danielle Collins’ farewell tour.

Good on Danielle, she has been killing it this year!

Do you feel like tennis is a difficult sport to portray in movies? Any film/show you think does it well? Is there a show or film that jumps out because of how much it missed the mark?

It must be difficult to portray, because it’s typically done quite poorly! There was a good French film just a couple of years back, Final Set (2020), that had some excellent on-court action. I recommend it for any tennis fan. Going back, Players (1979) was a poor film, marred by a dull storyline and a terrible lead performance from Ali MacGraw, but excellent tennis action with cameos by John McEnroe, Pancho Gonzalez, Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase, and dozens of other pros—not to mention a very good performance by Dean Paul Martin, Dean Martin’s son, who played collegiate tennis at UCLA. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) is probably my favorite: it really did well to exploit the psychological tension of the sport, and its on-court action is perfectly credible for its day.

Ali MacGraw, Dean Paul Martin, and Guillermo Vilas on Wimbledon's Center Court in Players (1979)
Dean Paul Martin, Ali MacGraw, and Guillermo Vilas on Wimbledon’s Center Court in Players. Photo: Paramount Pictures, 1979.

Challengers presents many aspects of the sport very, very well: the pace and ferocity of its rallies, the psychological one-upmanship (sorry, gendered term, but applicable here) of its rivalries, the woeful economic plight of its lower-tier competitors, the structure of the tour, even little details like the branding (aughts-era logos, kits, gear). The actors even know how to carry a tennis bag like an actual player would (which few fiction films get right)! How about you, Tina, do you have favorites—or peeves?

I always forget that Strangers on a Train is centered on tennis! I haven’t seen Final Set, but I’ve added that to my watchlist now. I can’t say no to a French tennis flick.

Battle of the Sexes (2017) remains my favorite tennis-centric movie. I think it benefits from showing a very famous match during a time where the style of play is very far removed from what we see today. Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs weren’t out there hitting 140 mph serves, so Battle of the Sexes didn’t have the burden of trying to show the speed of the sport. Instead, most of the tennis in that movie was presented in the same way it’d be if you were watching a tournament on TV. It’s a more aerial view that allows the filmmakers to swap out the actors for actual tennis players.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes Fox Searchlight Pictures
Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. Photo Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2017.

Lovely film! Excellent performances, a convincing simulacrum of the televised match, and really cool period design.

I think it’s a personal preference, but nothing drives me crazier than the sweat-dripping close-ups. Challengers had its fair share (especially at the very end), but for the most part, I agree that they got a lot of the small stuff right. The tiny detail that jumped out to me was Josh O’Connor’s Patrick using a rubber band as a shock absorber. To borrow a phrase from the film, that was peak tennis fuckboy behavior. Apologizes if you are a rubber band as a shock absorber user!

Maybe a nod to Andre Agassi, who was the one big star who used one. But it also makes sense that a down-and-outer like Patrick might: they cost three cents apiece!

Ignoring plot, what about Challengers tennis-wise were you excited/nervous about?

First of all, I was quite impressed with the script! It made perfect sense within its own diegesis and within the structure of the ATP tour and Grand Slams. The story is influenced a little bit, I suppose, by Andre Agassi’s rankings plummet in 1997 and brief foray into the Challengers (lower-level professional tour). The close friendship between the two leads reminds (without, I imagine, the constant homoeroticism and phallic churros) of Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, who bunked together for years as kids and who developed a friendly but intensely competitive rivalry as pros.

I think it’s important to recognize that Challengers is a sports melodrama. It’s like a Rocky film, one that stretches plausibility for emotional impact. And so the actual on-court action is heightened rather than realistic, with impossibly-long rallies of ridiculous ferocity and absurd points being played. Especially that very last one! But these make sense in a melodrama where the natural elements come into play with the ferocity of a Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind.

Josh O'Connor as Patrick and Zendaya as Tashi in 'Challengers'Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
Josh O’Connor as Patrick and Zendaya as Tashi in Challengers. Photo: Niko Tavernise, Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.

The very last point drove me a little nuts! No one is hitting that many consecutive volleys without putting it away.

True, but I think—following the violent crescendos of wind and emotion it followed the whole point was to take the climax somewhere almost rapturous. It was brave, I’ll give it that!

There were moments of the melodrama that I really loved and I think Challengers gave us angles of a tennis court that have never been seen before. I especially loved when we got to see the game play from underneath as though the court was made of glass. Other times, I felt like I was watching a movie that was filmed for 3D glasses, but was last minute changed to two dimensions.

Hadn’t seen “Racket-cam”™ before!

It’s a small thing to nitpick and likely flew under the radar, but as someone who’s very into racquets, the editing didn’t always match up with the actual flow of the point. Sometimes we’d get close-ups of the same racquet twice in a row as though it was hitting to itself. The colors were so distinctly different that I couldn’t help but notice.

At times, I think the film’s editor needed a tennis advisor in the room.

Which of the main three actors felt like the most believable tennis player?

I’m interested to hear your take, Tina, but I thought all three leads were not only well-constructed characters but also credible tennis players. Zendaya’s Tashi is a phenom, and sometimes a real phenom—like, say, Monica Seles, whose double-fisted-on-both-sides, take-the-ball-early-and-pound relentlessly approach seemed revelatory when she first came on the tour, as did the Williams sisters’ astounding athleticism—will bring a new dimension to the game. The one part that seems less credible, like you note, is her going to college rather than straight to the tour. Most promising female players’ games are fully realized by age 18 or so, and college isn’t the path for them. But then again, Tashi seems astutely aware that as a Black woman, the doors can close on her at any second, and that may motivate her decision to go to college.

We never see Tashi as a professional player in Challengers, so her character, a high-level junior/collegiate player, seems reasonable to me. The men, Patrick and Art, both have different dimensions to their games. They don’t look like pros—more so very good collegiate players—but aside from Patrick’s Jay Berger-like abbreviated serve, are credible enough for me.

I will say that I’m a little disappointed that the film didn’t create more personal playing styles for each of the characters. I definitely felt like Art, Tashi, and Patrick were somewhat based on real people. Obviously, Tashi is supposed to remind audiences of the Williams sisters. Art is clearly a Federer wannabe down to the Uniqlo sponsorship and the ON shoes.

And collared shirts! Not many of those on tour in the modern era!

Art (Mike Faist) shows a ball to the camera.
Mike Faist as Art Donaldson in Challengers. Photo: Niko Tavernise, Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.

I’m not sure who Patrick was based on. Maybe Djokovic? I wanted their styles to vary, though. I could see Art as the level-headed Federer whereas I think it would be more fun to see Patrick take on the showmanship of someone like Alcaraz. The overall characterizations felt a little flat to me, so I was hoping their personalities could come through stronger on the court in their style of play.

Fair enough, and there’s perhaps a place where a film with so much on-court action struggles. Most male players in the current game have adopted a relatively conservative strategy, playing percentages and taking few risks. It would make sense to have one player more clearly delineated as a paragon of consistency and the other more of a playmaker/shotmaker. But once the action takes place on court in Challengers, the points and shots—even the weight or trajectory of shots—feels aggravatingly the same no matter who hits them.

Art having six Grand Slams under his belt felt slightly unbelievable. Six is quite the feat! However, if I had to pick one actor who sold it best, my money is on Mike Faist. So let’s talk about the Phil’s Tire Tournament. Art should have have no problem beating Patrick especially if Patrick was ranked 271 and Art is making a run for the US Open. Was this supposed to be a 125 Challenger? Also, what ranking do you think Art held?

I don’t think the film ever spoke exactly to Art’s current ranking, but I assume he’d kept a pretty high one, maybe top 15 or so, even if it had been an unsuccessful year—a bit like the end of Serena’s career where she’d enter Slams without recent success but able to progress in the draw nonetheless.

A six-time Grand Slam champ entering a New York City-based Challenger event would draw a  bigger crowd and more notoriety than we see in the film, I’d think! But then again, as the film is careful to show us, these events are really the dregs, with little money, few attendees, and no press coverage.

I felt like the film did well to explain how the Challengers final between Art and Patrick could be competitive. Art has become a champion by playing by the rules, progressing one methodical step at a time, from juniors to college to professional, hiring smart coaches and investing in his own future.  Patrick went pro a little too soon, without a support structure, and has paid the price. But there is little between the two men’s skill sets, and Patrick has always had a bit of a psychological big-brother advantage over the more milquetoast Art. He’s also, as we see through the film, perfectly willing to employ no small amount of gamesmanship to his own advantage—which can be a part of the game every bit as much as forehands and backhands.

The gulf in rankings between the two men also illustrates that there can be very little dividing a great champion from an also-ran. Art’s physical game isn’t really any better than Patrick’s; he’s simply learned how to harness his strengths, improve his weaknesses, and focus his resolve in ways Patrick has not.

You make a really good point there, Paul. As someone newish to following rankings, it is fascinating to see how close in skill most of the pro tennis players are. It really is a mental game after a certain point. After all the training, cardio, skill development, it becomes all in your own head. You become your own worst enemy. Now, players are bringing along sports psychologists in order to improve their mental games. I think that’s part of the reason the sport is so interesting to me and the film does a good job of showing how alone Art and Patrick are in their final face-off. Not only that, but how easy it is to get under someone’s skin on the court. Even without their decades of messy history, it’s still so easy to lose focus.

I agree that there would have been a much bigger crowd! Especially since that part of the story took place in 2019 when it could have easily gone viral in the world of tennis fans.

Did it bother you that the rules of tennis weren’t followed? I’m thinking particularly about the fact that Tashi somehow had massive sponsorship as a junior player who wasn’t immediately going pro. I’m also thinking about the final point we see in the movie.

Wow, Tina, yes, the final point is absurd, I agree completely. Yet it did provide a satisfying conclusion to the narrative, echoing the ménage à trois the three almost had had more than a decade ago: the two men engaged in ferocious combat, giving no quarter, each of them playing freely and fiercely, and Tashi—having engineered it just like she did Art and Patrick’s kiss years ago—reveling in the moment.

Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS,
(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in Challengers. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures, © 2023.

I will give Challengers an A- on its verisimilitude. Scoring, strategy, paraphernalia, tourney structure, college ball, most of it is really strong. You have a good point about Tashi’s sponsorship. I also noticed a couple of little glitches. The players took a changeover after the first game of a set, a rule that hasn’t been in place for 20 years now. I also think they botched the conduct code penalties: the second offense, as most fans know after the infamous Serena Williams 2018 U.S. Open debacle, costs a player a game, not merely a second point.

Still, credit to Justin Kuritzkes’ script and Brad Gilbert’s advising for getting a lot right in Challengers. By the way, Tina, did you spot Gilbert’s cameo? I did!

I didn’t catch Gilbert’s cameo! Guess I have to rewatch.

He was well disguised in a bucket hat and a big mop of hair and mustache. He looked a little like Ion Tiriac as Art’s coach back in 2011!

Along those lines, Paul, I was surprised there weren’t any cameos from current tour players. Or, I guess 2019 tour players. I don’t know if you watched Indian Wells this year, but the number of Challengers trailers they played during the broadcast (and Zendaya showing up to the finals!) made it seem like there was going to be crossover of some kind.

I’m personally okay with there not being cameos. I felt like the film did quite well to set up its own reality within the structure and confines of the tour. Other players—like Art’s being a contemporary of Roddick’s and Fish’s—are present on posters and the like but not live on screen.

That changeover after the first game of the set bugged me, too, though! It’s so interesting to me that the small things, like the bags and the rubber band shock absorber, were perfect, but these larger, more obvious instances were done incorrectly. It feels like something that would have been caught. Especially the changeover one. We didn’t need to see them changeover a game into that set, so why?

Really! Just make it at 1-2!

Same with the penalties! As you said, this is a sports melodrama, but why not honor the penalties? Also, if they needed ideas for penalties, no one thought of the Nick Kyrgios chair toss?!

This is also the least of the issues, but did you feel like there was something weird going on with the racquet smashes? I’ve never broken one personally, but it looked like these actors had heavily reinforced racquets that wouldn’t smash.

Tina, I have to take the fifth on personal racket-smash knowledge! But yes, the one took like 12 violent cracks. That needed to be edited!

And did the flow of the points feel natural to you? I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt like the ball was CGI and the position of the players on the court in combination with the way they were swinging/hitting didn’t make logical sense.

I hear that! For top level players, I thought the actors swung the rackets convincingly enough. Especially as Art, Mike Faist had a nice-looking one-hand backhand! Not good enough for six grand slams, but nice-looking. (According to Gilbert, Faist is a former high school player, about a 4.0; Zendaya and O’Connor complete novices.) Their movement was really nothing like the dexterous, fluid, quick footwork you see from actual tour players, though, that’s for sure. Art would stumble every time he went to the corner, either leaving the court open or making himself susceptible to a shot struck behind him as he recovers.

Zendaya has shared some videos of her and her stunt double working on the film, where Zendaya would mimic the pro player’s stroke production but without hitting a ball. It’s too bad, as you note, that the physics of the ball movement do not seem especially convincing. For the record, I don’t think Challengers is great by any means. But it’s good, a lively, surprising, twisty-turny sports melodrama with excellent casting and performances and some exciting, if not necessarily realistic, on-court action.

Tashi (Zndaya) serves a the U.S. Junior Open.
Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) serves a the U.S. Junior Open in in Challengers. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures, © 2023.

I had no idea Faist played! He definitely was the most convincing with O’Connor coming in second for me. Zendaya had the least amount of court time in the movie and it felt the most awkward to me. I have no idea how they shot the tennis scenes, but it felt like they were doing a choreographed dance in the sense that they weren’t reacting and simply doing the rehearsed steps. It was missing the action and reaction of a real game. I think I could forgive some of the unrealistic points if they felt more organic.

Overall, I agree, I think Challengers had incredible performances and is definitely one of the better instances of tennis in film.

Indeed! I had a lot of fun watching it, and I think non-tennis players (heathens!) can enjoy the film’s rivalries, steaminess, and double-crossing without worrying about changeovers and dampeners like we do! It’s right there close to the top of tennis movies, and let’s hope its buzziness gives our sport a nice bump. All right, let’s go play some tennis!

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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