Tennis can be such a thrilling sport yet, when it comes to films about it, there aren't many that spring to mind when it comes to quality. King Richard won Will Smith his maiden Oscar while Battle of the Sexes dealt with sexism in the sport, honing in on the the lack of equality when it comes to prize money for men and women. This year, renowned filmmaker Luca Guadagnino puts his spin on the sport but does he deliver an ace with Challengers?

Tashi (Zendaya), a tennis player turned coach, has transformed her husband, Art (Mike Faist), from a mediocre player into a world-famous grand slam champion. To jolt him out of his recent losing streak, she makes him play a challenger event -- close to the lowest level of tournament on the pro tour. Tensions soon run high when he finds himself standing across the net from the once-promising, now burnt-out Patrick (Josh O'Connor), his former best friend and Tashi's former boyfriend.
Challengers is genuinely one of the most thrilling films of the year, taking the simmering intensity between the lead trio of characters and Guadagnino letting loose with easily one of his best films to date. There are so many stylistic choices that keep the film feeling fresh throughout - cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom framing tennis matches in such creative and exhilarating ways. Even outside of the tennis sequences, Mukdeeprom shoots the exchanges between these characters with a varying degree of intimacy, Art and Patrick's closeness accentuated in their younger years but drifting apart later in life - Tashi always remaining the centre of their attention though. It's all set to a pulsating score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that wouldn't be out of place at a rave - take note Wimbledon please to freshen things up. The electronic synth sounds don't feel like they should accompany tennis yet it works wonders here.

Guadagnino takes such an interesting approach to exploring the relationships within his films, utilising Justin Kuritzkes' writing and Marco Costa's editing to great effect in Challengers. The power struggle between the main trio is such a fascinating watch, Tashi Duncan being at the centre of admiration from Art Donaldson and desire from Patrick Zweig - all three manipulating one another to get exactly what they want. The way the narrative is pieced together just further excels the thrilling nature of the film, the centrepiece tennis match spliced with flashbacks to make the final sequence even more satisfying. The use of slow-motion and great call-backs to earlier moments in the film genuinely make this finale pitch perfect, delivering the same rush a thrilling rally would.
Tennis may play a major part in Challengers however, it's the lead trio that make this such a compelling piece of cinema. Zendaya is having one hell of a year with both this and Dune: Part Two showing how much of a screen presence she now possesses. Her performance as Tashi Duncan might just be her best yet, playful in nature at times yet always determined to make her mark in the world of tennis. Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor, along with Zendaya, share such scintillating chemistry you can almost see the sweat drip from the screen. Faist and O'Connor together make for such an entertaining duo, their innocence in youth soon displaced by a contempt for one another. Honestly, it's one of those films where it could have been an hour longer and it wouldn't be a bother due to these three actors.

Challengers joins the upper echelons of sports films that provide both energetic sports sequences and a truly captivating narrative that revolves around the people as much as the sport itself. Easily one of the best of the year so far.

Verdict: ★★★★★


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