The Sexiest Thing About 'Challengers'? The Tennis Scenes.

challengers tennis scenes
The Sexiest Thing About ‘Challengers’? The Tennis Amazon MGM Studios
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through these links."

THERE ARE MANY hot things about Luca Gudagnino’s Challengers, but the sexiest thing of all might just be the tennis. The Justin Kuritzkes-penned film follows Tashi (Zendaya), a young tennis player poised for stardom. After a winning match, longtime best friends and doubles partners Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) compliment her game at an afterparty, and a complicated love triangle is born. Tashi ends up dating Patrick, but a career-ending injury leads her to marry Art and become his coach. When Art hits a bad run, Tashi enters him in a “Challengers” event—a smaller tournament that allows players to qualify for a major, such as the U.S. Open. That’s where they run into Patrick after being estranged for years.

The tennis in Challengers is thrilling; watching Tashi play when Art and Patrick fall for her, watching the joy Art and Patrick feel when they play together as teenagers, and the sad, aggressive resentment that fills the Challengers match that frames the film all make for individually brilliant cinematic moments. Tennis allows these people to communicate without words, and is the outlet through which they can spill all their messy emotions.

It’s also where they fuck.

Kuritzkes’s kernel of the idea for Challengers came from becoming a tennis fan. He took lessons as a kid, but wasn’t much good, so he quit. But in 2018, while watching the U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, two things clicked. First, he immediately knew that he was going to become a tennis obsessive. Second, it became clear to him that a tennis match would make for a hell of a movie.

challengers tennis scenes
Amazon MGM Studios

“A tennis match is an artificial container for the chaos and drama of life. When I was writing it, I realized the structure of a three set tennis match is very much the structure of a movie,” he tells Men’s Health. “I always knew it would take place over the course of a match, and that the match would be a natural structure for the whole thing.”

In order to bring Kuritzkes’s story to life, director Luca Guadagnino first needed his stars to know, at least, how to play a game of tennis. Enter tennis consultant Brad Gilbert, who was a top 10 ranking tennis player for five years in the ‘90s and has since worked as a tennis analyst for ESPN. He’s also coached many of the greats, including Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and, most recently, Coco Gauff. Of the film’s three leads, Faist was the only one with any real tennis experience, having played in high school; O’Connor had never played, and Zendaya had only dabbled a few times as a kid. So they were sent to tennis bootcamp where they were quickly, intensively brought up to speed.

“We would leave the hotel at 6:00 a.m. for 7:00 a.m. practice. We'd have two hours of practice. Then they’d have the gym, then acting. They had long days, but that's what they do to transform themselves in a short period of time,” Kuritzkes says. “Tennis players and actors share a similar DNA, and a singular focus: this is what we need to do to be ready.”

challengers premiere
Challengers tennis consultant Brad Gilbert with Zendaya at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. Stewart Cook - Getty Images

They also wanted to map out what kinds of players Tashi, Art, and Patrick would be, based around their personalities. “It was important to me that each of their styles of playing tennis reflected the kind of guy they were,” Kuritzkes says. “Frankly, I don't know if that's true in life. As a fan, it made sense that each guy's personality, along with his strengths and flaws, could be revealed in the way he plays. And that would be a window into the way he lives his life.”

Gilbert took cues from real players when envisioning how the characters would play. “Mike's character was a little more defined. They wanted him to be more like a classic Pete Sampras, Roger Federer-style game,” the star-turned-analyst-turned-coach-turned-consultant says. “Tashi’s game was defined so it was clear she was a killer. And Josh was this freewheeling guy that we had to develop a crazy hitch for his serve.”

Kurtizkes had written out the matches in the script, and then before shooting, Gilbert went through each of them. “A lot of the tennis points had to be mapped out in the script, because so much of the movie is communicated through tennis,” the writer says, adding that before production he got on a series of Zooms with Gilbert and an ESPN staffer who notates tennis points for highlight reels. “We went through every tennis point in the script, and notated it based on each stroke. Then Brad would critique the strokes I had written.”

On set, filming the tennis with Gudaganino was a whole new experience, as the director brought what Kurtizkes and Gilbert had been working towards to fully-realized life.

“Luca, through his vision and his cinematographer, [would be like] let's make this point more dramatic; let's make it faster or slower,” Gilbert says. “I brought that to the table, and then he would tinker to create what he would like to see from it. Even though he's not a tennis person, he has ideas on how he likes to see things.”

Kurtizkes describes seeing the tennis scenes being shot as the time of his life, even though the process to get them right was incredibly complex; he and Gilbert would follow Guadagnino around the set as he planned his shot list, and it was a necessity for Gilbert to be on set every time something Tennis-related was being shot. Even down to minor things viewers may not necessarily notice, the details being researched and legitimate was of the utmost importance. “We cast the roles of all of the lines people and umpires with real tennis people, just to add that authenticity.” Kurtizkes says. “When you're actually shooting tennis, you have to shoot everything four times. With the actors, with the doubles, with the balls, without the balls. We had to treat it as if we were doing fight choreography.”

challengers los angeles premiere
Challengers screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, center, with stars Josh O’Connor (left) and Mike Faist (right). Stewart Cook - Getty Images

All that work paid off: the tennis in the film is more than just a game—for these characters, it’s the ultimate form of connection. Before Tashi enters their lives, Art and Patrick are best friends who went to tennis boarding school together, sharing many of their firsts with one another; over time, an erotic tension forms between the two of them. “They've gone through puberty together. They've spent their whole lives in dorm rooms, on tennis courts, and in locker rooms and showers together,” Kurtizkes says. “There’s a sort of erotic tension that runs through every intimate friendship, but especially one where you're raised in a wolf pack together. Not to mention that I find tennis as a sport to be incredibly intimate, but also very erotically charged.”

When Tashi enters their lives, the two men's already-complicated relationship begins to really sizzle: when they first watch her play tennis together and she scores a point, Art grabs Patrick’s thigh. “It was always very important to me that when they fall in love with her, both of them, it's when they're watching her play,” the writer explains. “Art even says in that scene, ‘Look at that fucking backhand,’ which is very different than saying something about her body, or something. It's not about her being beautiful; It's about her being this incredible force on the court. On an instinctual level, they recognize she's got something that they're drawn to.”

As Kurtizkes mentions, tennis is both intimate and incredibly erotic. So, in Challengers, whenever sex comes up, tennis is always involved. Patrick says he’d let Tashi fuck him with a racket. When Art and Tashi kiss for the first time, it’s after talking about Art’s game. Tashi gets enraged with Patrick when he won’t let her critique his game as they are about to have sex. Patrick and Art’s own sexual tension erupts on the court when they play together in a doubles match, and later while playing the titular Challengers match. Every bead of sweat and exposed thigh oozes sex from all three characters.

But these aren’t people who talk about all this sexual tension or their long-held, simmering resentments. They get it all out on the court—and that’s exactly how Kurtizkes wanted it.

“It was important that they have a space where they could communicate without talking, where they could really know each other and understand each other and have the conversations that they couldn't have,” he says. “That space was the tennis court. There's an understanding they can all reach on an intuitive level, on a level beyond language, that can only happen when they're playing. The freest, and most open, and most intimate they ever are is on the tennis court.”

Shop Now

You Might Also Like