“Tennis Is An Erotically Charged Sport” – Challengers Writer Talks Steamy Sports Movie

Challengers isn’t a direct biopic of a sporting legend, but the story was partly inspired by one of the most infamous tennis matches in recent memory.

As writer Justin Kuritzkes explained to Zavvi, seeing Serena Williams’ match against Naomi Osaka in the 2018 US Open – when Williams was fined $17,000 for multiple code violations including hurling abuse at the Umpire and smashing her racket on the court – proved to be an unlikely stroke of inspiration. He wasn’t particularly interested in tennis before then, but suddenly, everything changed.

“After seeing that, I started thinking about what it would be like to need to talk to your coach about something beyond tennis in that moment, something that was going on with you personally, and how you could communicate the stakes of that from the court without language. I started thinking about this as a movie idea, and began watching tennis as research; then I fell down a rabbit hole and became a legitimate tennis obsessive.

“From that research, I discovered the Challenger Tour, where you have the best in the world playing in those matches for no money – for the most part, they’re losing money to be there. I thought that’d be an interesting place to meet two guys at the opposite ends of their careers, who have a lot of history, and how that could play out entirely during the match itself.”

In the movie, those two men are Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), former doubles partners as teenagers who grew estranged due to the divides in a love triangle with Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), now the biggest tennis pro who doesn’t have Williams as a surname. Art and Tashi are married with a young daughter, but their relationship is growing frosty as Tashi suspects he’s falling out of love with the game, is desperate to retire, and has a string of humiliating losses behind him.

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Entering him into a low-stakes challenger tournament to get his mojo back, they soon discover that the now-struggling Patrick – who we’re introduced to penniless and forced to sleep in his car after his career stalled – will be one of the competitors. But as we journey back through their history, it soon becomes clear that this competitive dynamic may have been very deliberately engineered by the woman in the middle.

As Kuritzkes states, he never considered transplanting this story to another setting before falling in love with the sport, because tennis was a perfect fit for a turbulent love triangle for one crucial reason.

“I find that tennis is an erotically charged sport”, he continued. “The dynamic of the love triangle can be presented through the sport itself, in a way that wouldn’t be possible if this was, say, basketball; here, they’re both alone on the court, but they’re never truly alone, because they’re being watched by people who care just as much about the outcome as they do, but they can’t verbally express it to them within that moment.

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“For me, the tension in tennis comes from the fact that it’s like boxing, where you’re one on one, and it’s a fight, but you’re trying to not touch each other, just to miss each other. That to me is like a Victorian romance, there’s an in-built repression to every movement, even as it can get physically brutal and emotional, and there’s a lot of sweat involved!

“If you hurt yourself, you’re doing it to yourself, because the other person hasn’t touched you. You’ve tricked yourself into behaving in a certain way, which is all part of the complex mind game of the sport, and to me there’s a definite erotic charge to that.”

Challengers is Kuritzkes’ first produced screenplay, and despite being written on spec – as in, for no money, with neither a studio nor any producers attached – it attracted attention almost immediately as it got eyeballs on it. Just a few months after completing his final draft, director Luca Guadagnino came on board, an ideal fit for an erotically charged tale about repressed characters having previously made the likes of Call Me By Your Name and the underrated cannibal romance Bones And All.

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Kuritzkes has been a fan of Guadagnino since seeing his 2009 film I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, when he was in college.

“When you write something on spec, you’re really just writing it for yourself, with no expectation of what’s going to happen to it”, he added. “But when Luca’s name first came into the conversation as somebody who could direct, it was impossible to imagine anybody else making it.”

Guadagnino hasn’t always had the smoothest of relationships with screenwriting collaborators; his Call Me By Your Name scribe, James Ivory, has been vocal about how they dramatically fell out during production of that movie over their different creative visions for the project. Kuritzkes has already written a second film for the director – Queer, starring Daniel Craig, set to premiere later this year – so it’s safe to say that this was a far better match.

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“I could tell Luca and I were going to be friends early on, after we first talked on the phone. He responded to the script in a really intense way, which I found very touching – he could see a way in for himself creatively, and the promise that came with that was really exciting for me.

“What made the collaboration so easy for the two of us is that we could tell early on that we spoke the same language, and were excited by a lot of the same things in cinema. It meant that, even when we disagreed about how the story should be told, there was always a profound trust that he cared about the characters, and would tell the story in a way that was in their best interest.

“It’s one of the deepest collaborations I’ve ever had, and one of the greatest.”

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As a love triangle drama dealing with repressed emotional connections, you could argue that Challengers bears a resemblance to the recent Best Picture nominee Past Lives, written by Kuritzkes’ wife Celine Song. Whilst not about a love triangle in the same way, that semi-autobiographical tale was based on a true event from their lives, in which a childhood friend of Song’s from Korea came to visit the pair in New York, and similarly focused on a female protagonist pondering how her life could have been different if she didn’t lose contact with the other man.

In short, it’s not a million miles away from Challengers, even if the characters were infinitely more likeable in Song’s film. Would it be fair to say Kuritzkes was drawing from the same incident as a starting point for the tense dynamic between the three parties here?

“In terms of there being a conversation between the two films, I’m hesitant to say anything. I think it should be (Celine’s) right to contextualise that movie however she wants; she’s her own artist with her own work, so all I will say about Past Lives is that I remain a massive fan of it, and that it’s been gratifying to see the world discover that she’s a fantastic artist.

“We love to support each other, we’re the first people to read each other’s work, and we’re the harshest critics of it! There’s a trust between us as artists, and I remain incredibly proud of her.”

Challengers is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 26th April.

Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.