Challengers screenwriter reveals Zendaya-led thriller was inspired by controversial 2018 US Open final

Zendaya leads director Luca Guadagnino’s steamy new tennis psychodrama

Inga Parkel
Monday 29 April 2024 05:46 BST
Challengers writer reveals how Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka inspired plot

Director Luca Guadagnino’s newest tennis psychodrama, Challengers, took surprising inspiration from Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka’s controversial 2018 US Open final, the film’s screenwriter revealed.

Created by playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers stars Zendaya as Tashi, a professional tennis player-turned-coach who becomes the focus of a love triangle between two friends and sporting rivals, played by Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor.

Kuritzkes shared at a recent press conference that the characters were not inspired by any real tennis players. Instead, he explained that the premise came from his fascination with the tennis match between Williams and Osaka at the 2018 US Open.

That match saw Osaka, then 20, defeat tennis legend Williams in three straight sets to become the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Osaka’s historic moment, however, was dominated by Williams’s extraordinary meltdown after the umpire gave her three code violations for receiving coaching, smashing her racquet in anger and verbal abuse for accusing him of being a “thief” for docking her a point.

“Immediately, this struck me as this intensely cinematic situation where you’re all alone on your side of the court and there’s this one other person in this massive tennis stadium who cares as much about what happens to you as you do, but you can’t talk to them,” Kuritzkes said, according to Business Insider.

“For whatever reason, it just clicked in my mind,” he continued. “Well, what if you really needed to talk about something? And what if it was something beyond tennis? What if it was something that was going on with the two of you? And what if it involved the person on the other side of the net? How would you have that conversation and how could you communicate the tension of that situation using the tools that are specific to film?”

Mike Faist as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in ‘Challengers’
Mike Faist as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in ‘Challengers’ (© 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

He added: “That was really where it all started for me.”

Challengers is out in cinemas now.

Ahead of its release, Challengers received hoards of praise from critics. For The Independent’s reviewer Clarisse Loughrey, the Luca Guadagnino-directed feature is a five-star success and “the most gripping sports movie in years”, with Zendaya’s performance particularly worthy of recognition.

Challengers allows every slow-mo shot of Zendaya’s bouncing curls and her regal posture to further the argument that she could be the one to reverse the death of the movie star,” she writes. “But she grounds Tashi, too, when that hyper-confidence is allowed to falter for a moment, and something raw and ugly slips by.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in