How Authentic Is the Tennis in ‘Challengers’? A Breakdown. (2024)

How Authentic Is the Tennis in ‘Challengers’? A Breakdown. (1)

When Challengers hit theaters on Friday, a bizarre prophecy was fulfilled: the female lead of a Spider-Man movie went on to pick up a tennis racket. This trend (divine calling?) started with the original Mary Jane, Kirsten Dunst, who followed up Spider-Man 2 with the rom-com Wimbledon (it’s set at Wimbledon) in 2004. Then, after playing Gwen Stacy in two Amazing Spider-Man movies, Emma Stone starred as the legendary Billie Jean King in the 2017 biopic Battle of the Sexes. Now, Zendaya has completed the trifecta: After appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man films as MJ, she’s moved on to Challengers.

Why these Spidey-adjacent actresses are compelled to star in tennis films is beyond my understanding; I’ll leave that to the esteemed journalists of The Daily Bugle. Instead, I feel more qualified to analyze Challengers on the merits of one essential quality: its depiction of tennis. My credentials? A lifelong obsession with playing and watching the sport; losing to the cocreator of Billions, Brian Koppelman (classic all-American game: big serve, big forehand), in a brutal blow for The Ringer brand; restoring my honor by winning a low-level tennis tournament last summer. (As always, if you’re a 4.0/4.5 and based in New York, hit me up.)

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Obviously, there are other important elements to Challengers: the steamy love triangle between the film’s leads, the dynamic direction of Luca Guadagnino, the thumping score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But considering how few movies are set in the world of professional tennis, it felt prudent to explore how well Challengers—arguably the most high-profile project to come out of this niche subgenre—captures the sport. Without further ado, let’s see whether Challengers serves up a winning formula.

Tennis Rivalries

While Challengers jumps between various points in time, the premise of the movie is fairly straightforward. Having grown up together at a tennis academy, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) are best friends bursting onto the scene together, winning the U.S. Open’s junior doubles title the day before they’re set to play each other in the singles final. Later that day, Art and Patrick watch a juniors match featuring rising star Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), who impresses them with her ferocious game and jaw-dropping beauty. (As Patrick says, he’d “let her f*ck me with a racket,” which is, if nothing else, a memorable image.) When the boys invite Tashi to their motel room after a party, they engage in a three-way makeout session before she throws down the gauntlet: whoever wins the singles championship can have her number.

Over time, Art and Patrick’s battle over Tashi’s affections leads to a falling-out between them. (As for Tashi, she never gets to follow her dreams on the pro tour after suffering a career-ending knee injury.) Fast-forward to the film’s present-day timeline, and Art and Patrick are nearing the end of their careers. Art is a six-time Grand Slam champion—winning the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon two times each—hoping to secure the career Grand Slam (capturing all four majors) with a U.S. Open title before calling it quits. At this point, Art and Tashi are married and have a young daughter; Tashi also serves (pun intended) as his coach. Patrick, meanwhile, is a journeyman who never lived up to his full potential. As fate would have it, both men find themselves in the final of a Challengers event—the tennis equivalent of Triple-A baseball, which Art is using as a low-stakes tune-up before the U.S. Open—with years of bad blood ready to spill onto the court. All the while, Tashi watches with intrigue.


I’ll say this for Challengers: it understands that tennis rivalries are like nothing else in sport. The hostility between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, or Manchester United and Liverpool, are more about the respective cities; the players on these teams change over time, and in some cases, switch sides. With tennis, however, it’s a much more personal dynamic—and the conditions of the sport can often lead to drama. The best players tend to find themselves on opposite ends of a draw, so whenever they do meet up, it’s typically in the late stages of a tournament. One of the most iconic rivalries in women’s tennis, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, added up to 80 matches—60 of which were finals. (Incredibly, both players also have the same number of Grand Slam singles titles: 18 apiece.)

But there’s a crucial distinction between a rivalry based on mutual respect—Evert and Navratilova; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—and athletes with a shared animosity. For instance, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would be the first to admit that they don’t have the friendliest relationship: in a mic’d up charity doubles match, Agassi made some quips about his rival’s reputation as a bad tipper before Sampras aimed a powerful serve at him. And while their careers didn’t have much overlap, Margaret Court believes that Navratilova is a bad role model for the sport because she’s gay. Navratilova, in turn, has labeled Court a “racist and a hom*ophobe” while campaigning to have Australia’s Margaret Court Arena renamed. It doesn’t get much more personal than that. (Team Navratilova, always.)

But in the spirit of Challengers, what about players having bad blood because of an overlapping dating history? That’s a tougher nut to crack. The closest controversy among current players was ignited by Nick Kyrgios, who, when playing a match against Stan Wawrinka in 2015, said that his friend, Thanasi Kokkinakis, “banged your girlfriend,” referring to WTA player Donna Vekic. But while there are notable relationships on the pro tour, for the most part, they don’t lead to any theatrics on the court. (Which isn’t to say that players don’t get heated over their opponents’ antics.) If Challengers is guilty of embellishing the kind of interpersonal drama you’d see from the sport’s top players, well, that just makes for entertaining cinema.

Umpire Antagonism

Like any sport, there is an inherent friction in tennis between the athletes and the people enforcing the rules. Sometimes, it can get ugly. In fact, Challengers screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes was inspired by one such incident: the 2018 U.S. Open women’s final, which pitted Serena Williams against Naomi Osaka. During the match, Williams received a warning by chair umpire Carlos Ramos for getting coaching from the player’s box, a violation of the rules, followed by a point penalty for racket abuse and a game penalty for calling him a “thief.” The drama between Williams and Ramos overshadowed the rest of the match, which Osaka ended up winning. While Williams wasn’t entirely faultness with her behavior—she once threatened a line judge by reportedly saying she’d shove a tennis ball down her throat—it’s never a good look when an umpire draws as much attention as the players in a Grand Slam final.

As Kuritzkes explained, he was particularly fascinated by the strange predicament Williams found herself in: not being able to communicate with someone in the stands supporting you. Of course, that rule has since been changed, and it doesn’t play a factor in the movie. Instead, a lot of the on-court tension in Challengers is derived from the shared history between Art, Patrick, and Tashi, and how much is left unsaid in the heat of battle. As a result, the umpire doesn’t play the role of a chaos agent in the film: he’s merely enforcing the rules, which, in this case, means both players receiving warnings for unsportsmanlike conduct and racket abuse.

Suffice it to say, such emotional outbursts from players are true to life. Last year, Mikael Ymer was disqualified from a match for repeatedly smashing his racket against the umpire’s chair. (In a completely unrelated turn of events, Ymer was later handed an 18-month doping suspension and chose to retire from the sport.) At the 2012 Australian Open, Marcos Baghdatis had a memorable meltdown during a changeover in which he proceeded to destroy four rackets in quick succession.

As the Netflix docuseries Break Point repeatedly underlined, tennis is a psychological battle as much as a physical one, and when things aren’t going to plan, players can unravel quickly. Throw a controversial umpire into the mix, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for drama. In the case of Challengers, however, the umpire is an impartial figure doling out punishments as he sees fit, and that’s for the best: Art and Patrick’s mutual disdain adds more than enough fuel to the fire.

The Battle of the Backhands

The actual tennis on display isn’t the focal point of Challengers, but Guadagnino does find some creative ways to convey the action, following rallies from the perspective of the ball, the players, the rackets, and even from underneath the court. But nifty camerawork aside, it’s not always easy to get a grasp on the characters’ respective playing styles. Pre-injury Tashi has the most fleshed-out tennis profile, someone who dominates from the baseline with powerful groundstrokes not unlike the Williams sisters. It’s a different story with Art and Patrick: We know that Art is a Grand Slam champion, and that Patrick, while talented, has an unorthodox service motion. But it’s hard to distinguish between their styles of play, with one notable exception: the backhands.

Patrick has a two-handed backhand, while Art employs a one-hander. Perhaps Challengers didn’t put too much thought into the backhands, other than how it differentiates the players in the middle of a point, but it’s nice to get some one-hander representation on-screen. You see, the one-handed backhand appears to be heading toward extinction: While it’s the more aesthetically pleasing shot, you have to get on top of the ball to generate good pace; otherwise, it’s easier to exploit than a two-hander. Even Federer, who possessed an elegant one-hander that inspired a whole generation of players, has taught his children a two-handed backhand. One day, the one-hander could go the way of wooden rackets: a relic from another time.

Thankfully, the one-hander hasn’t been eliminated entirely. As of this writing, there are two players in the ATP top 10 who employ it: Stefanos Tsitsipas and Grigor Dimitrov. (Incidentally, Dimitrov’s nickname is “Baby Fed.”) Again, I don’t believe Challengers was making a grand statement about preserving the beauty of the one-handed backhand, but I appreciate its inclusion all the same. When a one-handed backhand hits, it hits.

Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood

Around the midway point of Challengers’ chronology, Art and Tashi reunite during the Cincinnati Open. It’s a pivotal moment in the film: After years of being close friends while she dated Patrick in her youth, Art and Tashi’s relationship turns romantic. But what might surprise viewers is where, exactly, Art and Tashi lock lips: an Applebee’s parking lot. In fact, there were a few chuckles during my screening when the scene played out: for such a glamorous, globe-trotting sport, Applebee’s seemed like the last place you’d find star athletes sharing a meal and making out.

But here’s the thing: When in Cincinnati, tennis players go buck wild for Applebee’s. As The New York Times reported in 2014, the Applebee’s in nearby Mason, Ohio, became a staple for men and women alike competing in the tournament—if only because there are so few options in suburban Cincinnati. But really, who among us can resist the allure of an Irresist-A-Bowl? (Another amusing detail from the piece: This Applebee’s would stock up on Perrier during the week of the tournament, which is the only time customers ask for it.)

Tragically, the Applebee’s location has since closed down, leaving players who compete at the Cincinnati Open scrambling to find another place for a post-match meal. (Is there a TGI Fridays nearby, at least?) As a result, Challengers featuring the Cincinnati Applebee’s isn’t just a niche Easter egg for tennis fanatics—it’s a tribute to a bygone era of athletes from across the globe eatin’ good in the neighborhood.

Tennis as a Relationship

On the night that Art, Patrick, and Tashi meet for the first time, they have an interesting discussion about what, exactly, tennis is. Tashi describes it as a relationship between two people that has the ability to take players to a kind of elevated state, pointing to an epic rally she had with her opponent earlier in the day that ended with her triumphantly shouting “COME ON!” amid thunderous applause. “We went somewhere beautiful together,” she says.

This is one of the most interesting ideas Challengers explores as it relates to the sport. We might not be able to get into the headspace of a player in the midst of a rally, but you know something special just happened the moment you see it. There’s an entire compilation of Roger Federer smiling after jaw-dropping points, win or lose, and I’ll never forget when Dimitrov let out a gladiatorial roar after prevailing in a grueling rally against Andy Murray. To paraphrase Tashi, when Federer and Lleyton Hewitt had one of the greatest rallies of my lifetime in the 2005 Indian Wells final, they went somewhere beautiful together.

It’s only fitting, then, that Challengers culminates with tennis as a form of catharsis. At the start of a deciding third-set tiebreak, Art and Patrick have a punishing rally that feels like it carries the weight of their entire relationship—the highs, the lows, and everything in between—as Tashi watches. The actual point construction might not be that accurate to professional tennis, but the emotions certainly are: both players pushing themselves to their physical limits before they can’t help but crack a smile. By the time the point ends, with Tashi screaming “COME ON!” from the stands, Challengers cements itself as not just a compelling drama about relationships, but a great tennis movie. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hit the courts.

How Authentic Is the Tennis in ‘Challengers’? A Breakdown. (2024)

FAQs

How accurate is tennis in Challengers? ›

It was revealed in an interview that a lot of the time the actors were just swinging a tennis racket handle and in most cases the head and the ball were added by CGI later. That's why sometimes maybe their eyes weren't looking at the ball in a way that would be natural.

How accurate are Challengers? ›

"He credits her a lot for [his success]." Like Mirka, we learn in Challengers that Tashi was a professional tennis player before an injury derailed her career. Although Zendaya's character is not based on an actual real-life figure, she certainly put the work in to ensure authenticity with regards to her tennis skills.

Who actually played tennis in Challengers? ›

Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, and Mike Faist star as tennis players in Luca Guadagnino's movie "Challengers." Tennis coach Brad Gilbert served as a consultant on the film and trained the stars. The actors spent hours playing tennis, watching tapes, and putting on muscle to look like pros.

Did they use real tennis balls in Challengers? ›

The crew quickly realized it would be impossible to have real play that precisely matched Justin Kuritzkes's script, especially in repeated takes. Their solution: Remove the rackets, and the ball. The actors held only the racket handle, whooshing the air with professional intensity.

Has there ever been a perfect tennis match? ›

A golden match is when a player does not lose a single point in the entire match. There are five documented cases of this at low-level events. Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman did so in a 1910 amateur match in the state of Washington.

Does Zendaya actually play tennis in Challengers? ›

While all three of them did have body doubles, Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O'Connor were really playing tennis in Challengers. The trio were trained by Olympic bronze medalist and former tennis champion Brad Gilbert, who served as a tennis consultant on Challengers alongside his wife Kim.

Are Challenger reliable? ›

Dodge Challengers require repairs approximately 0.2 times yearly (about once every five years) compared to other mid-sized cars, which average 0.4 yearly repairs (every 2-3 years). This means you'll need repairs half as often as a typical mid-sized vehicle and routine maintenance can reduce this number further.

Is the tennis movie Challengers based on a true story? ›

"Challengers" is not based on a true story, though the idea for the movie didn't come without real-life inspiration for writer Justin Kuritzkes. Tashi, played by Zendaya, was inspired by Roger Federer's wife, Mirka.

What is a ball bomb in tennis? ›

A tennis ball bomb is an improvised explosive device consisting of a tennis ball filled with combustibles or pyrotechnic material with a fuse producing a loud explosion.

What is a smash shot in tennis? ›

A smash in tennis is a shot that is hit above the hitter's head with a serve-like motion. It is also referred to as an overhead. A smash can usually be hit with a high amount of force and is often a shot that ends the point.

Is Challengers tennis accurate? ›

It's hard to make actors look like athletes. A real athlete has training, nutrition, hyperspecific sports medicine, and years of muscle memory on their side; an actor gets weeks or a few months of training at most.

Is John McEnroe a real tennis player? ›

Also known as: John Patrick McEnroe, Jr. John McEnroe (born February 16, 1959, Wiesbaden, West Germany [now in Germany]) is an American tennis player who established himself as a leading competitor in the late 1970s and the '80s.

Does Scarlett Johansson play tennis? ›

Scarlett Johansson

She starred in a tennis movie, Match Point, but also loves hitting the court in her real-life. She actually credits her smokin' bod to her tennis!

How accurate is tennis replay? ›

The video from the six cameras is then triangulated and combined to create a three-dimensional representation of the ball's trajectory. Hawk-Eye is not infallible, but is advertised to be accurate to within 3.6 millimetres and generally trusted as an impartial second opinion in sports.

Do you lose a challenge in tennis if you are correct? ›

Each player is typically given a limited number of challenges (usually 3) per set, and if the challenge is successful, the player retains their challenge. If the challenge is unsuccessful, the player loses their challenge and the original call stands.

Is it better to play USTA or UTR? ›

If a player's goal is to earn a state, sectional, or national ranking, then the bulk of their competition schedule should be comprised of USTA events. UTR (Universal Tennis Rating) events are designed to increase the probability of playing competitive matches throughout a tournament.

How do you predict tennis accurately? ›

How to predict a tennis match?
  1. Player Form: Assess the recent performance of each player. ...
  2. Head-to-Head Record: Analyze the history of matches between the two players. ...
  3. Playing Style and Strategies: Understand the playing styles of the players involved.
Jun 29, 2023

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