The Perfectly Bonkers Climax of Challengers Analyzed

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Challengers.

What draws directors to use tennis as a metaphor for sex in movies? Is it because unlike other sports like swimming or golf, players must look directly at their opponent across the net? Is it the raw athleticism on display? Is it the obvious love pun in the scoring system? Whatever the reason, films like Wimbledon, Match Point, A Room With a View, and even The Royal Tenenbaums have set romantic storylines on the tennis court. Usually a key moment in a match represents something else – for example, a ball that hits the net can teach a lesson about luck, an unexpected defeat can mirror a rocky time in a relationship, and a covert glance during a match may hint at hidden feelings.

The new movie Challengers perhaps takes this genre to another level in its depictions of sexuality. For much of the film, players Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick () spend years vying for the affections of former tennis phenom Tashi (Zendaya). Their romantic competition culminates in a single match filled with erotic undertones, where the outcome will determine the characters’ romantic paths going forward. Director cuts between the action of the match and flashbacks to the characters’ teenage years. The jumps back and forth in time become more erratic as the tension in the match escalates. Tashi seems nearly overwhelmed with each strike of the ball. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electronic soundtrack builds to a crescendo as the men stretch across the court to reach each other’s drop shots.

Yet we never find out who actually wins the face-off, let alone wins Tashi’s heart. Instead, Guadagnino makes a curious choice: He ends the movie not at match point but with an accidental-though-perhaps-intentional mid-air hug at the net. A hug that thrusts the men together after a long match of longing looks but no physical contact. A hug that seems more climactic than any sex scene in the movie. A hug that defies physics and (likely) the rules of tennis. It’s simultaneously sexy and ridiculous.

But it’s impossible to end this type of film any other way. Either man defeating the other would have been anticlimactic because Tashi is not truly the prize they claim to pursue. The hug confirms that two of the three characters are in love—and it’s not the pairing one might expect. And that’s the essence of Challengers: The story of a woman aroused by orchestrating erotic encounters between the men who love her.

The first flashback provides key context for understanding the drama at the film’s center. We watch as young Art and Patrick—curiously close roommates who playfully call themselves “Fire and Ice”—win the doubles title at the U.S. Open Junior Championships in 2006. Patrick, arguably the better player but less diligent, agrees to let Art win their singles tournament face-off the next day.

But then the two boys watch the mesmerizing Tashi exert herself on her way to her own juniors title. After flirting with Tashi at a party in her honor, they invite her back to their hotel room. Over a shared beer, Patrick admits that he showed Art how to masturbate. When they’re all sitting on the bed together, she leans back and coaxes—really, coaches—them to reach across her and kiss one another. She smirks.

The boys’ bond starts to fracture when the ultra-competitive Tashi interrupts the make out session to propose something indecent: She’ll give her phone number to whoever wins the next day’s match. She then exits the room, insisting she doesn’t want to be a “homewrecker.”

Art and Patrick will spend the rest of their professional tennis careers competing for Tashi’s attention. So much for the bro code. Patrick breaks his promise to Art and wins the U.S. Open match. Later, when Art asks Patrick whether he slept with Tashi, Patrick demurs. He does, however, point out that Art has a habit of placing the ball in the throat of the racquet before he serves. Patrick mimics Art’s move, both mocking Art and signaling to him that he did in fact have sex with Tashi.

A collegiate relationship between Tashi and Patrick fizzles, and she soon faces a career-ending injury. In Patrick’s absence, Art swoops in. Eventually Tashi and Art marry, and she becomes his coach.

Fast forward to a giant billboard featuring Tashi and Art modeling luxury goods as tennis’ golden couple. Despite his success—or because of it—Art has lost his verve and keeps losing matches. When he considers retirement, Tashi enters him into a challengers tournament in New Rochelle, N.Y., hoping he’ll snag an easy win and confidence boost. That’s when Patrick stumbles back onto the scene. Living out of his car and finding shelter night-to-night by bedding women he meets on dating apps, Patrick has grown into a scruffy cad. For Tashi, he proves an irresistible counterbalance to good-natured golden boy Art. When all three characters realize the men will face off at the challengers tournament, Tashi makes threats and promises to each of her “two little white boys,” as she calls them during a pivotal scene.

Tashi tells Art she will divorce him if he loses, and promises to coach Patrick if he throws the match. Are these promises genuine? Does she want either of them? Both? All we know is Tashi wants to see a good tennis match. At the beginning of the movie she declares that playing a worthy opponent is similar to entering a relationship: “It’s like we were in love.” She’s turned on by the heat of competition and living vicariously through her husband and his former lover.

The film’s screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes describes tennis as a sport of near-misses: A player tries to get a ball just past another. “There’s a deep intimacy in that, and a lot of repression,” . “It’s very sexy. And you usually play tennis against somebody of the same gender, so tennis, by its nature, then becomes almost homoerotic.”

In theory, this is Zendaya’s film. After all, she is the movie star—fresh off the box office success of , Zendaya is one of the biggest celebrities in the world, known as much for her acting as her red-carpet fashion. Faist and O’Connor, who broke out in and , respectively, are stupendous in the film. But Zendaya is the center of gravity, and the marketing team knows it. For an original drama with no ties to I.P. and a mid-sized budget, Challengers is everywhere—thanks to her. You’ve probably spotted on the press tour while her co-stars smile shyly in the background.

Guadagnino, known for the and the , plays with audience expectations. No stranger to fostering movie stars—by casting both and in key roles early in their careers, he helped launch them into the Hollywood stratosphere—Guadagnino capitalizes on Zendaya’s offscreen star power: The movie begins and ends on her face.

And throughout the film, Guadagnino positions Zendaya in the center of several shots, with the two boys flanking her. When the three first meet in 2006, Tashi invites Art and Patrick to her hotel room. She beckons them both onto her bed, and they scramble to each side of her like eager puppies. Later, during the movie’s climactic tennis match, she sits exactly in the center of the stands, swiveling her head back and forth to look at each man on either side of the court. Though impassive, she’s in the middle of the action. She adopts an iciness reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn as suitors flitted around her in The Philadelphia Story. Zendaya is the unattainable object of desire. It’s how a director frames a movie star.

But it’s a feint. Tashi is nothing but bait. Just as Tashi orchestrated that kiss between the boys in their youth, she lures the men into their final embrace in the film, sitting between them in the stands—the supposed prize—when actually what the boys wanted was one another all along.