Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


I’ve always been intrigued that scoring in tennis uses the term love.

In “Challengers,” Italian director Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love,” “Call Me By Your Name”) uses tennis as the framework to explore aspects of a love triangle. His films are known for “their emotional complexity, eroticism, and sumptuous visuals.”

Here, the tennis court is the setting for a gripping story about a former tennis prodigy-turned-manager (Zendaya) who is helping her once-champion husband (Mike Faist) make a comeback. Problem is, he is facing his former best friend and wife’s one-time lover (Josh O’Connor) across the net … and in the bedroom.

You get the double entendre of the film’s title.

Professional tennis player Andrea Petkovic observes, “I played on tour for 16 years and I was ready for Luca Guadagnino’s new movie to fail. But it’s the most accurate depiction of the tennis life I have seen on screen. ‘Challengers’ got everything right about my sport – apart from the sexiness.”

“Challengers” is currently playing at Tropic Cinema.

Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman began her career as a child model and backup dancer. But she made her feature film mark with the “Spider-Man” blockbusters and the “Dune” epics. Now she is trying her wings in a more artsy film.

Zendaya leads “Challengers” as Tashi Duncan, an 18-year-old tennis prodigy on her way to stardom until she injures her knee.

“It’s a movie and it’s tennis, but it’s not a tennis movie,” explains Zendaya. “It’s much deeper. I don’t want people to go into it thinking, ‘Oh man, I have to understand tennis to understand this movie.’ Tennis is just a metaphor for a lot of bigger (stuff). It’s a metaphor for power. For codependency. They’re using tennis as their device to get these things out of their system. It’s the only way they know how to communicate.”

She adds, “It’s not a sports movie, but it’s not just a comedy, but it’s not just a drama. It has all these different feelings swirling around.”

This is Zendaya’s first true grown-up role. After her stint as a Disney child star, she continued playing young characters in TV’s “Euphoria” and Marvel’s” Spider-Man.” The 27-year-old actress says, “I’ve been playing 16-year-olds since I was 16. So it was nice to play a character that was not a child anymore.”

In “Challengers” she turns on her sexuality. The three leads are imminently watchable, their steamy flirtations like a riveting game of tennis. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.

Flick Fan Nation observed, “There is so much style in every frame. Each performance is layered, with just the right amount of sex appeal, while telling this true story in the most interest way possible.”

Was Challengers based on a true story? No, although it was inspired by an actual event. Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes points to a moment during the 2018 US Open when Serena Williams was penalized for receiving coaching from the sidelines. “I had never heard that you’re not allowed to speak with your coach during the match. And immediately, it struck me as really cinematic,” says Kuritzkes.

He adds that tennis champion Roger Federer used to practice with his wife, Mirka, who used to be a tennis player before an injury cut her career short. After that, she “kind of” became her husband’s manager. Roger’s wife helped shape Zendaya’s character, he admits.

“A lot of male tennis players really rely on their wives and girlfriends,” notes Serena Williams. “Just look at someone like Roger Federer: he used to actually hit with his wife, Mirka, and they were like glue.”

This may be Luca Guadagnino’s most accessible film, despite its leave-you- wondering ending.

Game … set … love?

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