Movies

I Thought Challengers Was Well Acted By Zendaya And Co, But I Have One Big Complaint

History is littered with a slew of sportsball stories in which the sport itself doesn’t exactly look the way it does in real life. Anyone who has seen Angels In The Outfield or Major League Back To The Minors or even Lucas can attest to the fact that not every sports scene properly mimics the professionals or even follows the basic rules of the sport. It’s a common refrain but no less distracting each time it happens, as I was reminded while watching Zenday’s latest film Challengers, which attempts to make its stars look like professional tennis players to very mixed results. 

From shots of Zendaya hitting CGI balls to long, tense rallies that go on for what feels like a bajillion shots between Mike Faist and Josh O’Conner’s characters, there’s a lot that looks OK out of the corner of your eye but doesn’t quite make sense when you stare at it for too long. I’m not starting in on Art’s serve positioning because the movie does try to address that, but in the more casual scenes it becomes clear Luca Guadagnino and co. were less interested in tennis and more interested in using tennis to say something about the movie’s torrid love triangle. As a tennis player, I was just as interested in the actual tennis, and it left me pretty frustrated.

As Guadignino’s own team admitted the famous director only had a “vague interest” in tennis, with Faist telling Empire:

He had no knowledge of tennis going into this. And I think he had only a vague interest in certain tennis specificities. He was more interested in the bodies and sweat.

So how did that “vague interest” play out on the big screen? 

Zendaya waving at Mike Faist in Challengers 2024.

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Watching Zendaya “Hit Balls” Is Kinda Sorta Passable

The actress was recently on Kelly Clarkson’s daytime talk show and admitted “all the shots” for the tennis scenes were choreographed and taking the “ball away” allowed her not to worry about anything but how her form looked on the big screen. Serena Williams actually watched Challengers and called Zendaya out for hitting fake balls in the movie, and there’s even a video of Zendaya running around the internet and essentially “playing” tennis without the ball. 

@tennis.legend
♬ original sound – Tennis Legend

If you’re paying close attention, you don’t need to be a professional to notice the ball is fake in certain shots (some of which are quite cool from a cinematography standpoint to be fair). It also appears in certain shots like she’s hitting that fake ball straight into the ground as hard as she possibly can.

It’s not all bad news, though. The movie uses a lot of cut-tos to try and work around some of the challenges (as Apples Never Fall recently did), and Zendaya’s actual movement patterns look pretty good. It’s clear she practiced a lot, even if the end result can still feel a little fake and jarring at times. She’s not the only issue though.

Mike Faist in Challengers.

(Image credit: MGM)

The Rallies In The Final Match Last Forever

When Art and Patrick are playing their final match, the rallies go on forever. And when I say forever, I mean forever. Maybe in a real match extended back-and-forth points happen every now and again, but not on point after point after point from pro-level athletes. There’s also a lot of just hitting the ball hard in these exchanges and not many changes of pace or tricky shots to try and trip up their opponent. 

Toward the end of the final challenger face-off —and this is not really a big spoiler— they both finally got to the net and there was an insane number of back-and-forth volleys that happened with neither character managing to end the point. Zendaya’s character Tashi got really into it and was amped up in those last moments, but I was more confused about why neither was able to put the ball away.

I’ve heard a fair number of tennis players bashing the depiction, including my own pro, who had a lot to say about the tennis scenes in the trailer before the movie released. I take her point, but it’s a shame because the Luca Guadagnino flick is really well-acted and sometimes uses tennis to great advantage to help amp up the love triangle. It also clearly didn’t phone it in and had pros and stunt doubles on set who could really play.

Plus, in an interview on YouTube, Mike Faist said they put a lot of effort into the tennis too, calling it “a lot of work, a lot of training,” but noting he enjoyed having to “dive all the way in.”

I don’t disagree. They clearly put work in. In fact, Challengers gets a lot of the intensity, the location-shooting and the logistics right. They definitely cared about this being a tennis movie and getting certain details right, but as a tennis fan, I wanted more. Too often I was taken out of the movie by a shot that clearly didn’t look right or a point that had alleged professionals making odd strategic choices. Some of that was definitely to further the story, especially around the epic final sequences, but some of it could have been easily corrected.

It’s no wonder people are lit up about Zendaya’s performance and more in the Challengers reviews I’ve read. There’s so much that works about this movie, but if you’re going to make a sports movie, the way you depict the sport is going to be looked at critically. Challengers will not go down as some terrible example we use to joke about bad action in sports movies. If you’re not into tennis, you may not even notice, but I definitely did and it was what I was thinking about when I left the theater.

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