Challengers – A Modern, Exciting Love Triangle

Justin Kuritzkes

The story of Challengers had a unique beginning for playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, who makes his debut as a screenwriter. Productions of his plays have been staged by The New Group, Jack, and Actors Theatre of Louisville. His debut novel, Famous People, was published by Henry Holt in 2019.

Kuritzkes was researching the life of his grandfather, who served as bureau president of Queens, New York (home of the U.S. Open, among other tennis landmarks) in the 1980s. As he delved into the history of the Arthur Ashe Stadium — home to the Open since 1997 — Kuritzkes happened to watch a controversial match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in 2019.

“I had not been much of a tennis fan, but my family is full of tennis fans,” says Kuritzkes. “Watching Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka in the finals together, there was a controversial call about Williams receiving coaching from the sidelines. I had never heard of that, but it clicked with me as an intensely cinematic situation.”

“That idea then started brewing in my head,” the screenwriter continues. “Then, parallel to that, I became a legitimate tennis fan and began watching what are called ‘Challenger’ events, which are in the lower tier in the world of pro tennis tournaments. I thought it would be an interesting place for two guys who hadn’t seen each other in a long time to meet again.”

The unexpected player in this dynamic is Tashi Duncan, a young tennis phenom who — in the tradition of the greatest love triangles — throws off the relationship between Patrick Zweig and Art Donaldson (the players meeting again in a Challenger event). In addition to sparking desire in both Art and Patrick, Tashi brings out emotions and attraction between them that they’ve never truly acknowledged. Tashi is a strong, self-assured, forthright woman, even as a teenager; throughout the story, we see her overcome some setbacks while pivoting from others. Tashi’s sometimes mischievous demeanor coexists with the fact that she demands the best from herself and others, especially when it comes to tennis.

“Love triangles are one of the most basic plots in cinema,” says Kuritzkes . “Even in a relationship between two people, there’s always a sort of imagined third presence.” I ask what that third presence might be. “Well, for a lot of people, it’s, like, Jesus,” he jokes. “Or it’s their conception of themselves, or their parents, or their friends. But in a love triangle, that third presence is not imagined.” Either way, he says, the parallels between his life and Past Lives or Challengers don’t matter: “Once it gets transformed into a work of art, the connection between that and the real thing is irrelevant. That’s just fuel that you’re using to propel a vehicle.”

Director Luca Guadagnino on the set of CHALLENGERS, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), Challengers has has a nonlinear style, but that connection between the characters is clear and compelling. When we meet them, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist) are choosing between college and careers, having been roommates at a tennis boarding school since they were 12. Best friends and friendly rivals, the two are known on the tennis circuit as “Fire & Ice.” When they meet Tashi (Zendaya), she’s already a star ascending — fast — and her magnetism on the court precedes her. As Tashi enters their lives, a rivalry for her affection splits Patrick and Art apart, even as she makes them realize the love that anchors their friendship.

As the story bounces through a dynamic, interweaving storyline that travels back and forth in these characters’ lives, framed by a revelatory “challengers” tennis match between Art and Patrick that takes place 13 years since they met Tashi — after an injury changed her trajectory, after Art and Tashi married and had a daughter, after Patrick makes Tashi and Art reconsider everything. Through a narrative that volleys between the early aughts and 2019, we see the paths they took, the games they played, and the passion they followed. It’s Tashi’s power, emotionally and romantically, that both pivots and anchors the connection they all have.

C_05746_R2 Mike Faist stars as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Niko Tavernise © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The complications of a relationship fascinate me,” continues Guadagnino. “Relationships come with control over the other, but at the end of the day, they also come with control within yourself. Those were elements that for me were very important. I didn’t know anything about tennis, but my job as a filmmaker is to study and discover things I didn’t know before. It was a great opportunity for me to understand how the dynamic of desire, and the dynamics of control and self-control, are mirrored in the beauty and athleticism of the game of tennis.”

Says Guadagnino, “I conceived of the whole story to be as much ‘entertainment’ as possible — and when I use that word, I mean it as an art, as something pure: I want audiences to be amused by watching imagery on screen; that for me is the highest and purest form of cinema.

Deep in the grips of tennis mania, Kuritzkes had begun to wonder what could make watching the game even more interesting. “If I knew exactly what was at stake on an emotional level beyond the court for the people playing and the people watching, that would be just eating a plate of chocolate truffles to me.” His agent sent the script to the producers, Amy Pascal and Rachel O’Connor, who got it to Zendaya, who loved it. The actress wanted both to star and to co-produce. “One of the things I remember saying to Zendaya when we first met was that the cultural space that Zendaya occupies in the world is the space that the character Tashi was supposed to occupy — that was the life she was supposed to have,” says Kuritzkes. “I think she really connected with that ambition and that pain.” The producers and Zendaya who got Guadagnino onboard.

Justin Kuritzkes on the set of Challengers

With Challengers, Kuritzkes became part of a machine: He was working with Guadagnino and the film’s tennis consultant, the coach and commentator Brad Gilbert, on the many gameplay scenes, which were choreographed like fights. Each one had to be shot with both body doubles and the actors, and only Faist came in with tennis experience. “During breaks, we would sometimes pick up racquets and play. I have really funny videos on my phone of Luca,” says Kuritzkes, smiling. “It was so adorable. He just couldn’t hit the ball to save his life.”

Kuritzkes says that he always imagined a charge between Art and Patrick — “There is eroticism present in every intimate friendship, especially one between two guys who have spent their lives in locker rooms and dorm rooms and on the court together” — and that Guadagnino’s interpretation pushed it further. Mostly, though, the boys are each other’s foils, with Patrick always willing to play the heel. In Guadagnino’s hands, this inevitably bends erotic. When the two first become infatuated with Tashi, Art says earnestly that she’s “a remarkable young woman.” Patrick replies, “I know. She’s a pillar of the community.” He lowers to a whisper: “I’d let her fuck me with a racquet.” Kuritzkes says that although none of the characters is based on a real player, it was important for Tashi to be a Black woman. “The story of American tennis is Black women for the past however many decades,” he says. “I also knew that I didn’t want to not specify the races of the characters. That always feels to me like you’re avoiding something. Her being a Black woman informs a lot about how she navigates her situation and how she navigates her relationship with these guys.” The Zendaya line making the rounds in the film’s trailer — “I’m taking such good care of my little white boys” — sounds affectionate only on paper.

When Kuritzkes was a kid, he felt bad that so many of the films he loved, like Jules et Jim and Y Tu Mamá También, were about love triangles; he felt guilty getting so much pleasure from watching a scenario in which someone was being wronged, rejected, or hurt. Now he believes movies are exactly the right place for it. “Part of the joy of watching it is thinking, At least my life isn’t as messed up as that, or, My life is as messed up as that, and thank God I’m not alone,” he says. “What’s good for art is the opposite of what’s good for life.”