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‘Challengers’: a rally of love, sex and tennis

The film concludes with a tie-break between the two estranged friends with Tashi as the spectator – a ‘climax’ that the trio completes all those years ago. That 13-year-old tension bubble finally bursts. Essentially, the score resets to all-love: Patrick and Art’s bodies collide and Tashi erupts. Through her human surrogates and “little white boys,” she rediscovers the post-coital clarity of unadulterated tennis.

In an age when sports is reduced to the mechanics of winning and losing, Challengers conspires to reveal the old-fashioned sensuality – and tragedy – of the feeling. It can be seen as an ode to the toilers, the middle-class strivers who survive on sensory triumphs rather than on actual results. It can also be seen as a cinematic manifestation of the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) debate, in which champions with legendary rivalries are often outdone by champions with better numbers. The outcome of the final becomes irrelevant, because the spectators experience the truth of life in the tiebreak. They see that the chemistry overshadows the statistics and the joy overshadows the algorithms. At that point, tennis is a supernatural relationship.

But the history books record titles, not moments. They describe scorelines, not memories. The fact is that Tashi and her boys lose more than they gain in their search for that special bond. She urges Art and Patrick to capture the thrilling humanity of a Federer-Nadal marriage – where the outcome is not the point, but every point is an outcome. The film knows that a machine like Djokovic will always own the debate. It just doesn’t matter. Because the story is in the players looking at the opponent, not at the ball. The romance is in the challengers, who rebel against the confines of tennis by hitting balls over the net. After all, they are just strangers, standing in front of strangers and asking to be loved.