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Everything to know about Challengers (and tennis) before watching

At Polygon, a lot of us are fans of sitting down to a movie with as little upfront information as possible, for the feeling of discovery. But sometimes, it helps to know a few things going in, whether it’s an interesting fact about the movie’s history or just knowing how many end-credits scenes to wait for. Here are four things we think you should know about Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers before watching.

What is Challengers about?

Tennis star Tashi (Zendaya) sits outdoors at night, sharing a drink with Patrick (Josh O’Connor) in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers

Photo: Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The simple title doesn’t offer much clarity. But broadly, and without spoilers: Challengers follows a complicated relationship between three people. Zendaya, who also produced the movie, plays Tashi, a former teenage tennis superstar. In a story that jumps back and forth in time, she meets best friends and tennis partners Art (West Side Story’s Mike Faist) and Patrick (The Crown’s Josh O’Connor), dates both of them, marries one of them and becomes his tennis coach, then pits them against each other in an epic tennis match for complicated personal reasons that take most of the movie to unpack.

The movie starts at that match, when all three of them are in their 30s. Then it loops back to their teen years, and jumps around in time to explore what happened between the threesome’s first meeting and the present, more than a decade later.

Does Challengers have a post-credits scene?

No, there’s nothing after the credits — meaning no further information about the aftermath of that final match. Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, Bones and All) and writer Justin Kuritzkes leave that up to fanfiction writers. We like to think that aftermath resembles the climactic scene in one of Kuritzkes’ favorite movies, Y Tu Mamá También, which… well, if you know, you know.

What do I need to know about tennis before watching Challengers?

Tennis player Tashi (Zendaya) sits in the stands at a match in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers. The fans around her are applauding something going on on the court, but she’s smiling and shrugging, with her eyes closed.

Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Everett Collection

The scoring rules for tennis are a little complicated, and it’s worth boning up on them before the movie if you want to fully understand the action and the specific setbacks and triumphs Art and Patrick face. (Video gamers who’ve played a lot of Wii Sports tennis or any of the many other tennis sims may be way ahead of the game here.)

The two men are competing in a Challengers match, one of the qualifier events the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) uses to determine who goes on to professional-level competition. When the movie starts, Art is already a pro-level player, qualified for the biggest events in the sport, like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Patrick is trying to qualify to play at that level.

The key terms to understand: The two men are pitted against each other in a match, which typically means three or five sets. A set is a series of games, played until one player has won at least six cumulative games and has won at least two more games than their opponent has. The winner of a game is whichever player scores four points first, except when the game is tied at three points each. We’ll get into that below.

Points have their own designations in tennis: love (zero points), 15 (one point), 30 (two points), and 40 (three points). Tennis has multiple officiants, but the one seated above the match, known as the chair umpire, serves as a referee, calling the score and any faults or penalties that would change the score. For instance, if the chair umpire calls a score of “love-30,” that means one player has zero points and the other has two. When both players have the same number of points, the score is called as “all,” as in “15-all,” meaning each player has one point.

A game that hits a tied score of 40-all has its own special word, “deuce.” In a deuce situation, a player needs to score two points in a row to win. That means a four-point game might go on for a dozen points. Whoever scored the most recent point in a deuce game after the score was tied is said to have “advantage,” since they’re halfway to winning — so if player A scores one point in a deuce game, they have advantage, but if player B then scores a point, the score goes back to 40-all, with player B now having advantage. There are several ways to score points in tennis apart from successfully getting a ball past the other player. An opponent might surrender points via a fault. Or the chair umpire might assess penalty points for an opponent’s unsportsmanlike conduct, including swearing, throwing things, delaying a match, and more.

Yes, all this is relevant in Challengers, especially for understanding why Art and Patrick play so many games against each other, and why some of those games go on so long.

Can you enjoy Challengers without knowing anything about tennis?

Sure. It’s pretty clear when one of the players is on the upswing and the other is losing, just from their responses. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ aggressive, driving score for the film spikes up the excitement and makes it clear when big, important things are happening. But being able to read the on-screen match scoring and follow what’s going on in individual games will give you a lot more nuance about the status of a given game and the overall match.

Are the actors really playing tennis in Challengers?

They’re often hitting real balls on real courts, but plenty of effects and editing trickery were involved in making the games look seamless. Zendaya, Faist, and O’Connor all went through extensive training to make sure their forms on the court were convincing. But as Zendaya has pointed out in interviews, she’d never played tennis before, and she faced a steep learning curve, giving a credible performance as a world-class tennis prodigy.

Is Challengers a good movie?

Polygon sure recommends it! It’s a playful, sexy, tense story, part romance and part compelling sports drama. From our review:

Luca Guadagnino’s sweaty, panting sports-and-sex romantic drama Challengers feel[s] like a thumbed nose (or a raised middle finger) aimed at American Puritanism and an increasingly sex-negative culture. Challengers is a sharp and snappy movie, full of big emotions expressed through fast-paced dialogue in some scenes and through silent, sensual physicality in others, all shot with creative verve and aggressive in-your-face energy. Everyone in this movie is chasing sex and success, and conflating those things with each other in unashamedly provocative ways.

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