The Eroticism of Sport in Challengers

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The Eroticism of Sport in Challengers

In Challengers, tennis is everything. It’s a game, a relationship and, as screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes described to NBC, “a very erotic sport.” Paste critic Brianna Zigler wrote that “Challengers treats its tennis matches as the only real outlets for sexual release.” Everyone seems to be in consensus: Challengers is just hot, thanks to not only the steamy ménage à tois of Zendaya, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor, but also to impressive tennis matches directed by Luca Guadagnino, a maestro of psychosexual romance.

In Guadagnino’s filmography, romantic desires are demonstrated without showing love-making on screen; sexual urges are symbolized through cannibalism (Bones and All), dance (Suspiria) and, in the case of Challengers, tennis. In the subgenre of athletic romances, sports have routinely been employed as stand-ins for sex. The phenomenon is especially pertinent for one-on-one sports, like tennis, martial arts and wrestling. In martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, fighting relieves romantic tension with a physical conversation, revealing power dynamics and vulnerabilities. The same can be said about Love & Basketball, where a passion for sport intertwines with a romantic relationship. Sweaty, hard-breathing bodies are one thing, but the competition and psychological play of sport brings out the true eroticism of the romance genre.

After the number of mainstream sports romances fell off since the early 2000s, Challengers vindicated the form, proving that wordless exchanges of passion through sport can produce even more romance than actual sex. The one-on-one, back-and-forth rhythm of tennis is its own form of love-making, whether stemming from passion for the sport or for the person on the other side of the net. The revved-up tennis players of Challengers want one thing: they want to win. (Whether the trophy is validation or a U.S. Open title, it all comes back to tennis.) 

Art (Faist) and Patrick (O’Connor), doubles partners and childhood best friends, share everything—a bedroom since they were 12, tennis courts for as long as they can remember and even mannerisms that linger well into adulthood. The only thing they can’t share is all-star (and mutual crush) Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), causing them to joust for her attention over the span of two decades. Their lustful rivalry brings suppressed, psychosexual feelings to the surface. Always compared to one another, Patrick takes on the more domineering role in his friendship with Art (who is fittingly implied to be the weaker player of the two). Though only one scene explicitly shows their sexual desire for one another, the thin line between attraction and competition brings out immense eroticism, especially on the court. 

The matches between Art and Patrick build in intensity until the last scene, a tie-break of the New Rochelle Challenger, where they unexpectedly find themselves facing off in the final. Choreographed by tennis coach Brad Gilbert (his Olympic medal is only outshined by his students like Andre Agassi), the game holds the pace and intensity of a real match, but certain directorial choices bring the scene to a simmer. Smirks and long glances, as well as tight framing of tense thighs, sweat and other physical signs of motion, simulate a contact-free sexual exchange. The game becomes all about control—who is the steady center, and who is floundering around the court trying to keep up. 

Kuritzkes told NBC that tennis is very homoerotic, as the structure of the game centers around same-sex play and a distanced connection. As seen in movies like Personal Best and A League of Their Own, the same-sex comradery and physical intensity of sports offer acute explorations of queer themes. The homosexual tension of Challengers stands out for similar reasons that Top Gun is often remembered as a subtextually gay movie—especially its volleyball scene—with both movies featuring suggestive gestures between men in a typically hypermasculine space.

Some homoerotic allusions are blatant, such as when Patrick eats a banana courtside while smirking over at Art, though the sexual longing between the two is largely subtextual (and mainly centered around Tashi). Yet all their carnal desires are accentuated by an erotic and vivid observation of the body. Guadagnino communicates their subliminal romance with tons of close-ups; popping veins and tightening muscles serve as physical manifestations of emotional strings under the skin. Cue the final set of Challengers, in which a racket bangs against Faist’s jiggling calf as his sweat splatters, slo-mo, onto the camera.

The rules of tennis are strict, but Challengers is all about fluidity. Tashi explains it best: “Tennis is a relationship.” It’s more than a ball-and-racket game, but a coordinated step into an intimate, unspoken harmony; just like the beginnings of any romance, tennis is about studying someone’s patterns and acting upon their impulses. In Challengers, a tennis match offers a chamber for characters to explore their underlying psychosexual dynamics through a sweaty, grunting one-on-one game. Its success reminds us why sports romances can make such erotic outlets for love stories: They don’t succumb to the expected and breezy methods of traditional rom-coms, but instead use high-stakes athletic thrills to dive into the psychological and physical complexities of love.

Sage Dunlap is a journalist based in Austin, TX. She currently contributes to Paste as a movies section intern, covering the latest in film news.

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