For These "Challengers," Tennis is More than a Game

Title: Challengers

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist
Studio: Amazon MGM Studios

Genre(s): Drama
Rated: R (For language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity)

"Tennis is more than just a game we play; it is something we experience. For 58 seconds I understood my opponent perfectly. In a way, we were making love." So says Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) to a couple of boys she has just met at a party. Earlier in the day they watched Tashi play a tennis match. The intensity was unlike anything they had seen, and both knew they had to meet her. When they do they understand the depth of her love of the game they both fall instantly in love with her.

Or are they in love with each other in a way? If playing tennis is like making love, what does it say about these two men who have grown up playing tennis in various competitions, but are now looking to forge their own path forward? And where does Tashi fit into all this? So is the complicated love triangle in Lucas Guadagnino's "Challengers," a movie that is being sold as a steamy love triangle to audiences but is actually a complicated story of love, passion, and betrayal. So complicated is the relationship between these three that if you are looking for a good guy in this scenario, you may want to watch another movie.

For there are no good guys or bad guys here. On the contrary: these may be the three most despicable leads I've ever seen in a tennis movie (a genre that is not exactly large, I will admit). However, as I've said in the past, the characters don't have to be likable; they just have to be interesting. Take Tashi for example: here is an extremely unlikable woman, yet we can't take our eyes off her. She lives and breathes tennis. For her tennis isn't so much a game as it is a purpose for living. Early on she tells both boys that whoever wins in the next tennis tournament will get her phone number.

When they inquire which of them she wants to win the most, she replies "I just want to see some good f*&cking tennis." Everything she does going forward revolves around that mentality. When an injury ends her own tennis career, she pursues the man who has the most promising future and becomes his manager. For her, the relationship is not so much about love or passion, but whether or not she can continue living her dream through someone else. When said husband asks her to assure him that everything will be okay whether he wins or loses, she says coldly "If you lose I'll leave you."

I actually wondered if she would have that reaction to him cheating on, probably best not to go there. The two men (whose names I'm keeping secret to savor the surprises) are also in a complicated relationship with each other. Though they love each other like brothers, their lust for the same woman and passion to be the best in their sport inevitably come between them. Soon they aren't even sure if they are friends or enemies (for that matter, I wasn't sure either).

"Challengers" is being sold as a movie about tennis players falling in love with the same woman, but it is really about three people who combine two forms of passion to the point where outside forces affect both of them. If this is a love story, I've certainly seen more romantic films. As a movie where complicated people manipulate each other living what they perceive to be their best lives, it's fascinating, tragic, and even a little exciting. When the final shot ended everything came together in such an interesting way that I couldn't help but applaud  Guadagnino for being in such control of the film. He is truly one of our great living directors.