In Challengers, Ambition Is Sexy Again — But Comes At A Cost

Spoilers ahead. We’re living in an era of anti-ambition, as the New York Times coined it. As the pandemic raged on, already thin boundaries grew even thinner as steady work became more precarious, leading to burnout and waves of quiet quitting, the image of the career-driven person glued to their phones during social functions or dropping everything for a “work emergency” during off-hours, became less and less attractive. After all, why would the goal-focused workaholic be an appealing partner when, instead, you could have someone who prioritized a healthy work-life balance and focused on more personal, fulfilling things? But Challengers, in which attraction and desire are intrinsically linked to drive and competition, makes ambition sexy once again — while also proving it can still come at a cost. 

The Luca Guadagnino-directed film stars Zendaya, Josh O’Connor (The Crown), and Mike Faist (West Side Story) as a trio of tennis players tangled in a love triangle and bounces across time. There’s the current day, during which famous pro Art (Faist) is competing against his former friend and struggling athlete Patrick (O’Connor) in the finals of a lower-level tournament in New York, and the past, which starts 13 years earlier when the duo meets 18-year-old Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a young woman who has already been labeled as tennis’ next big superstar, and leads back to the present. It’s here, in these characters’ pasts, that the connection between ambition and attraction starts to form both on and off the court. 

“Tennis is a metaphor for so many other things: attraction, passion, desire. And these characters, at the end of the day, are incredibly complicated and messy,” Zendaya tells Refinery29. “The alternate [movie] title could be codependency instead of Challengers. They are searching for something in life that they can’t just quite get on their own, so they do whatever they can to be seen by each other. They’re kind of screaming out just to be in contact, to be able to touch, to be felt seen by somebody else because they feel very alone, and it makes them act out almost childishly.” 

When we meet teenage Art and Patrick, it’s clear that they’re both impressive tennis players. They’ve just won a doubles final together and will be competing against each other in the singles final. Still, there is something so unserious about them. They wear clothes that don’t fit quite right, joke about “letting” each other win certain points, and take their spot in the final — and the talent that got them there — for granted. They are charming yet silly boys who, frankly, lack the star power to earn attention.

Then, they meet Tashi. Art and Patrick lay eyes on the tennis prodigy for the first time while she’s on the court playing her finals match (she wins with ease). They can’t take their eyes off her, but it’s not just because she’s gorgeous (duh), or that they’re simply attracted to her (they unabashedly are). They are mesmerized by her skill and intense drive. When Tashi plays tennis, losing is not an acceptable outcome, and that is hot

That night, Art and Patrick stay late at Tashi’s victory party hoping to spend more time with her despite the fact that their final is early the next morning — which she quickly notes, the slightest hint of judgment in her tone. And when Patrick offers Tashi a cigarette, you can tell she’s about ready to write him off — why would a serious athlete do that to her body? — especially while he pokes fun at her plans to continue her education, like Art (they’ll both be attending Stanford), instead of going pro like he plans to do. Here, a spark of understanding flashes between Tashi and Art. On a fundamental level, he gets her plans and the way she carefully considers her career; that’s something that lies within him too. Art lacks confidence but wants to be better; Patrick treats tennis as, well, a game. While both boys are volleying for her attention, it’s that brief connection that makes you want to cheer for Art. Tashi deserves someone who understands her goals and whose own drive could potentially match her own. In this moment, Patrick is the fun fling; Art is the guy who could maybe come close to her level. 

Ambition and desire come to a head — almost literally — when the trio find themselves back in Art and Patrick’s hotel room, a scene now made infamous from the trailer. Tashi teases them, trying to pull their individual drive and competitive spirit to the forefront by offering the winner of the next day’s final the ultimate prize: her phone number. Suddenly, the two friends are more than ready to compete, leading to a steamy makeout session — first between all three of them, then between Art and Patrick. Their unspoken attraction toward each other is unlocked by Tashi’s own ambition and her desire to be surrounded by it. It’s the sexiest moment of the movie because each character is going after what they want, unencumbered and ultimately satisfied with the results while still wanting to push for more

But ambition being the main force behind attraction and desire eventually starts to take its toll. While competing at Stanford and dating Patrick (he won her number) some time later, Tashi experiences a career-ending injury, leaving her nowhere to channel her all-consuming ambitions. This is how she and Art become reacquainted after graduating. He’s been fueled by grander ambitions since their first meeting, his skill has improved and he’s starting to win. But he still has room to level up — something both he and Tashi recognize and want. So, Art hires her to be his coach, they giddily make out — their lofty goals turning them on. The spark that was there from their first meeting is now a full flame, and, eventually, they’re married, share a child, and, thanks to Tashi, Art is a multi-Grand Slam-winning tennis star.  

By the present day, however, that spark is completely gone, replaced by a coldness. Tashi has orchestrated Art’s entire career, propelling them both to “Royal Couple of Tennis” status. But Art’s ambitions have waned — he has, perhaps, passed his athletic peak and wants to spend more time with their kid — while Tashi’s have not. Art had let Tashi dictate the majority of his career and had taken on her ambitions as his own. Now that Art no longer wants what she wants, their relationship has become all business. It’s a stark reminder that, yes, ambition and drive can be hot — especially when your partner matches your energy — but it can’t be the only thing between you. Priorities change — people change — and if you let your career be central to your identity, eventually you’ll hit a wall.

“[For] these characters, their attraction is almost about the qualities each one of them lack,” Faist said. “Art is arguably the least talented tennis player, but he’s also the least secure. Both [Tashi and Patrick] have a very deep sense of self, and so he’s attracted to that innate quality that the both of them possess and that he simply does not. Because he is drawn to that, he allows himself, and his own identity, to be thrown to the wayside, and we see him at the tail end of his career start to realize and come to terms with that.” 

Reaching for ambition, then, becomes a desperate act for our trio. In a moment of self-doubt, Tashi tells Art, “Or you can keep being a tennis player. Which is what you are,” trying to push him back to his once-attractive self. Art, for his part, searches for that bygone ambition within him as a way to keep Tashi’s interest, begging her to tell him that she’ll leave him if he loses to Patrick in the final of the tournament. And Patrick, sensing the tension between his former friend and lover and refusing to accept that his lack of drive has squandered his own talents and desires, tells Tashi that Art “is ready to be dead. Who will he be to you if he’s not playing tennis?” 

As adult Art and Patrick face off in their final (which is broken up in scenes across the film), Tashi finds it hard to watch, in part because neither man is playing their best tennis. Their game lacks ambition. Whoever loses feels like they will lose everything, so they’re scared and sloppy. But as the match continues, Art and Patrick find their way back to each other, connecting like they did in that moment when they first met Tashi, and allow themselves to acknowledge their drive desires. Tashi is on the edge of her seat, her head whipping back and forth as she follows their high-stakes tête-à-tête. At last, she’s no longer alone in her ambition, and to her, there is nothing sexier. 

But we’ve seen this play out already. Striving for greatness is thrilling and propulsive in the moment, but also begs the question: once match point is served and they’ve all left the court, will anything actually be left for them?

Challengers is in theaters on April 26.

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