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Warning: This story has plot spoilers for Challengers (2024).

Given the ample doses of existential dread faced by each of the three protagonists in Challengers, Hollywood’s latest tennis-centric feature film, perhaps a better title for the movie would have been Challenges.

Over the course of 131 fast-paced, time-jumping minutes, a three-sided romance takes place between a trio of skilled tennis players who even when they appear to be enjoying themselves are also constantly staring down their demons. Think of Challengers as a high-octane, emotional challenge match, at one level contested between this troika, at another a battle between self and self. Add in romance. But don’t you dare call Challengers a romantic comedy. As one character who frequently deploys profanity might say, “No effing way.”


As the film begins, it’s 2019 and we meet Art Donaldson (played by Mike Faist), a six-time Grand Slam champion and somewhat bland, reasonably likeable fellow who’s fallen into a patch of poor play. Keen to resurrect his game just prior to the one major he’s never won, the US Open, Art enters a Challenger tournament in New Rochelle, New York and has reached the final.

Art’s opponent is his childhood pal, former doubles partner, eternal rival, and current frenemy, the more brash Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). Patrick and Art came of age at the same academy and went on to win the 2006 US Open junior doubles title, a match closed out by a tweener winner struck by Patrick. Through those developmental years, the two naturally built their own special affinity. But while Art hit the big-time, Patrick has largely lived his tennis life on the Challengers tour and as the New Rochelle event starts, has so little money that he must sleep in his car. Their disparate career arcs, also flavored by each man’s relationship with a woman named Tashi Duncan, have proven divisive. Notably, Patrick has never lost to Art.

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And then there’s Zendaya in the role of Tashi. Winner of the ’06 US Open junior title, Tashi may or not be the film’s central love interest but is certainly its most tragic figure. Once and intermittently a romantic partner with Patrick, at the start of the film, Tashi is Art’s wife, manager, coach—three posts she might well surrender once the Donaldson-Zweig New Rochelle final ends.

Back at that time of adolescent ascent, amid those splendid triumphs all had at the ’06 US Open, the three spent a sizzling evening together. “It’s a relationship,” Tashi says about tennis, Of course, this being a feature film, she’s not really talking about tennis at all. Or is she? Hence, one evening of teenage hormones propels the plotline in all its affinity, disconnection, and, yes, suspense.

Suspense and Ambiguity

Ah, suspense. Here we find Challengers sharing kinship with another tennis-themed film, 1951’s Strangers on a Train. That film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a Hollywood director who owns the suspense category as surely as Rafael Nadal commands clay.

Like Challengers, Hitchcock’s film revolved around two men and a woman. In Strangers on a Train, though, only one played tennis, while one was murdered, and another did the killing. Also akin to Challengers, Strangers on a Train generates its own sparks of sexual energy; albeit, as you’d expect from a film made in the ‘50s, far tamer.


When it comes to other movies that showcase tennis rather obliquely, Challengers’ ambiguous ending summons Blow-Up (1966), which concludes with two mimes playing an imaginary tennis match in front of a crowd, complete with no racquets or balls. As with Challengers, consider that yet another way to examine our existential condition.

Tennis Movies: A Partial Pantheon

Then there are movies where tennis figures into some mix of the cultural zeitgeist or, even more, grand historic occurrences.

Always looking for ways to demonstrate her eternal empowerment, four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn loved tennis and pursued glory on the courts in the 1952 film, Pat and Mike. In 1977, at the height of the tennis boom, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall saw to it that the two protagonists played by Allen and Diane Keaton meet for the first time at a social doubles match. Likely this was Allen’s way of reading the tea leaves of the moment. Another Allen work, Match Point (’05), features a former tennis pro in the lead and cites the thin margins of a tennis match as a figurative plot device. A Room with a View (1985) shows how tennis was part of the milieu of Edwardian England in the early 20th century.

Wimbledon (2004) starred Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany.

Wimbledon (2004) starred Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany.


On the stage of global history, two films depict tennis in ways that conclusively reveal shifts in a nation’s social fabric. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) focuses on a wealthy Italian Jewish family in the years just prior to and during World War II. In 1938, when Jews are banned from the city’s local club, the Finzi-Continis let them play on their private court, everyone’s tennis whites a symbol of purity and innocence that is about to be blown to smithereens. A similar changing of the guard occurs in The Last Emperor (1987). As the title character and his family play tennis, they suddenly hear gunfire. Enter the revolutionary army, who hold them at gunpoint and summarily evict them from their luxurious home.

While tennis is history-adjacent in those films, more recent efforts have made tennis history itself the central story. Three notables: King Richard (‘21), Battle of the Sexes (‘17) and Borg-McEnroe (‘17). These three are strongly defined by reverent fidelity to the plot lines of each of their accomplished and charismatic protagonists.

Naturally, there have been fictional tennis films, with the invariably glorious ending. Back in 1979’s Players, actor and tennis player Dean-Paul Martin made a Rocky-like run to the Wimbledon finals that helped him regain the love of his life, played by Ali MacGraw. Paul Bettany took it one step further in 2004’s Wimbledon when, much to the pleasure of his sweetheart, played by Kirsten Dunst, Bettany’s character won the title.

Recent notable tennis films like King Richard (‘21), Battle of the Sexes (‘17) and Borg-McEnroe (‘17) have focused on faithfully retelling real-life events.

Recent notable tennis films like King Richard (‘21), Battle of the Sexes (‘17) and Borg-McEnroe (‘17) have focused on faithfully retelling real-life events.

Challengers Draws on the Dysfunctional Model—But Hope Might Be Near

Most of all, Challengers tilts on a premise that began to emerge starting with John McEnroe in the early ‘80s and Boris Becker later in the decade. As each of these greats publicly agonized over his struggles as athlete and icon, there came the view that at its core, tennis is toxic. That notion blossomed further in Andre Agassi’s 2009 book Open: tennis devours the souls of its young.

While for Becker, McEnroe, and Agassi, all that agony was literal and even justifiable given how much of their hearts and souls they’d each given to the sport to become world class athletes, other films have depicted this dysfunction allegorically, emphatically showcasing the sport as a villain. In 1982’s Shoot the Moon, Keaton once again occupies a tennis court, in this case one she’s built on her Northern California property as a sign of personal liberation in the wake of a plummeting marriage. At a party to celebrate the court’s opening, Keaton’s estranged and angry husband, played by Albert Finney, destroys the court while furiously driving his car.


Films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) have used tennis as a way to showcase dysfunction allegorically, emphatically showcasing the sport as a villain.

Films like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) have used tennis as a way to showcase dysfunction allegorically, emphatically showcasing the sport as a villain.

Five years later came Less than Zero, adapted from Gen-X avatar novelist Brett Easton Ellis’ tale of teen alienation in ‘80s Los Angeles. Robert Downey, Jr., playing a son who’s had his share of issues with substance abuse, surfaces at his family’s home. As Downey desperately seeks to connect with his father, he is, at least initially, rebuffed as the dad instead is engrossed on the family’s private tennis court, mindlessly swinging at one volley after another against that technological non-opponent also known as a ball machine. To make sure we’re even more aware how horrific engagement with tennis can be, the father stands far too close to the net and has pitiful form.

Two New York-based films extend this approach. Clad in vintage Fila clothing, once-promising prodigy Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) has a mid-match meltdown while playing the US Open in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The opening scene of The Squid and the Whale (2005) is a family doubles match that reveals the fissures in the parents’ marriage.


The Midwest is the setting for Bridesmaids (2011), where two members of a wedding party who despise each other (Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne) square off in a doubles match and strike missile-like groundstrokes at their object of contempt.

Building off this angst-laden narrative legacy, Challengers makes the case for tennis as poisonous, most vividly through the persona of the highly strung Tashi. Following that US Open junior title run, she surprisingly puts her pro dreams on hold and instead heads to one of college tennis’ dynastic schools, Stanford. But playing a match versus Pepperdine, Tashi suffers what soon enough proves a career-ending knee injury. Years later, she appears to have settled for life as Art’s Svengali. Throughout the movie, though, it’s also clear that Tashi remains both unfulfilled, confused and, most of all, angry by the cards tennis and life have dealt her.

In a subtle counter to Tashi’s tumult, Art and Patrick have a different relationship to both tennis and one another. Has tennis hurt them the way it has Tashi? Not quite. Art’s built a Hall of Fame resume. Patrick hasn’t fared as well, but continues to fight the good fight. Poor Tashi had none of that. At one level, this film makes the case for the emotional value of playing doubles as juniors. At another, as the film ends, the respective tennis journeys of Art and Patrick appear to be moving forward, potentially fueled by the healthy spirit of pursuit, competition, and perhaps even camaraderie. While tennis has made life complicated and uncertain for Tashi, it might well put Art and Patrick on the path to redemption.