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Why the writer of ‘Challengers’ classifies it as not a romance, but an ‘erotic, tennis thriller’

“There’s something about a love triangle... even a totally equal triangle still looks like it can cut you,” screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes says.
CHALLENGERS, from left: Mike Faist, Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, 2024.
Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor star in "Challengers." ©MGM
/ Source: TODAY

Warning: This story contains spoilers for "Challengers."

From the trailers alone, we knew “Challengers” was going to be steamy.

Set to “S&M” by Rihanna and Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater,” the film promised a thrilling love triangle that unfolds on and off the tennis court. But split-second shots from one scene in particular gave the film the social media shorthand of “that threesome tennis movie.”

“Challengers,” out April 26, follows three tennis prodigies — Tashi (Zendaya), Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist) — as they fall in and out of passionate relationships and strive for greatness on the court. The trailer promised tense verbal and physical back-and-forths, screaming — and yes, sex.

Just a few days before the film’s release, the Cut outright asked the question on viewers’ minds with the headline: “Is there a threesome in ‘Challengers’ or what?”

The answer — like the theme and message of the movie — is far from simple.

How ‘Challengers’ subverts a traditional love triangle

Famous love triangles, from “Twilight” to “Bridget Jones’ Diary," are actually “love Vs,” the screenwriter of “Challengers,” Justin Kuritzkes, explains. After all, there isn’t any underlying romantic tension between Edward and Jacob, or Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver.

“If there’s not desire flowing in all directions of a love triangle, it’s not really a triangle,” Kuritzkes says.

In “Challengers,” Tashi, Patrick and Art all have unique relationships with each other. In the film, Tashi has a romantic relationship with both men, but the underlying tension between Art and Patrick proves one of the most dynamic relationships of the story.

Their sexuality isn’t explicitly expressed. However, O’Connor told Variety that the relationship between the two tennis stars is “everything.”

“I think it’s Platonic and non-Platonic. I think they’re obsessed with each other. I think it’s stronger than love — we need each other in order to feel complete,” O’Connor said.

The subversion of the typical “love triangle” was intentional, Kuritzkes says.

“There’s something about a love triangle — that’s an unstable shape. It’s a little menacing, you know. Even a totally equal triangle still looks like it can cut you,” he says. “And so I think people are drawn to triangles and to stories that have three characters in them because if the distance between any two of the characters changes, so does the distance with the other one.”

“I really wanted to create a situation that was as unstable as possible,” he adds with a laugh.

So, who's the villain in 'Challengers'?

The result is a chaotic unfurling of desire and secrets, communicated primarily through volleys on the tennis court. By the end of the movie, it’s easy to find all three of the central characters unlikable, with Tashi’s manipulation, Art’s deceit and Patrick’s abrasiveness.

Some have dubbed both Tashi and Patrick “the villain,” but Kuritzkes opts for less simplistic terms.

“I don’t think there’s protagonists or antagonists in life. I think there’s just people bouncing off of each other,” he says.

Zendaya in "Challengers."
Josh O'Connor and Zendaya in "Challengers."Niko Tavernise / MGM

Kurtizkes also pushes back against the idea that “Challengers” is about people behaving badly.

“I think on the surface, a lot of what these characters do to each other seems cruel or selfish, or like they’re trying to hurt each other,” he says. “But I think ultimately, they’re always also being kind in their own weird way. There’s actually a lot of care that they have for each other. They’re all, in their own way, trying to do what’s best for each other, even as they’re really messing with each other.”

Is 'Challengers' a romance? A sports movie? Or something else?

As a result it’s hard to put the film into one category, and Kuritzkes says he didn’t have a genre “goal” in mind when writing the film.

“I knew it was a tennis movie, but I didn’t really think of it as a sports movie,” he says.

Tennis specifically provides a unique backdrop for the exploration of relationships, Kuritzkes argues. The singles format of the sport is inherently intimate, he says, because it’s played alone, but with an audience.

“While you two are on the court, you have a little secret between the two of you,” he says. “You’re doing it alone, but at the same time, anybody who watches tennis knows that they’re always cutting to the box on the broadcast. So there’s all these people who are not on the court who really are on the court with their players.”

What sets tennis apart from similar one-on-one like boxing, for example, is that instead of trying to win the “fight” through contact, you win through strategy.

“Tennis is all about not touching,” he says. “Tennis is about just missing the other person so that they can’t get to the ball. So, to me, I feel like within tennis there’s a lot of repression because it’s so tightly controlled. There’s so many rules around where the ball has to fall, the way you have to serve, and where your foot lands and all of that. But at the same time, once the ball is in play, there’s this really wild abandon that takes over.”

Writing “Challengers” was an exercise in taking that impression of “tension” and “pent-up energy” and imagining what it might feel like to be on the court — made possible through the training and coaching expertise of tennis legend Brad Gilbert.

Kuritzkes believes the film can be best described as “an erotic tennis thriller.”

“What I like about that is that I hear that, and I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that movie looks like. But I think this maybe is it, an erotic tennis thriller,” he says. “So more than a romance, I would think of it like that.”

So.... is there a threesome scene in 'Challengers'?

Sort of, and it depends on your definition of a threesome.

The “threesome” scene from the trailer that much of the internet is fixated on occurs shortly after Tashi, Patrick and Art first meet. Both boys are aiming to shoot their shot (or should we say serve an ace?) with Tashi while chatting and drinking in a hotel room.

Tashi warns them that she’s not a “homewrecker,” implying she doesn’t want to get in the middle of their relationship. But she eventually invites both of them to sit with her on the bed. She first kisses Art, then Patrick. Both kiss her neck before she reclines on the bed. Patrick and Art then kiss while she looks on, grinning. She then interrupts things before they can escalate any further.

When they each ask for her number, she promises it to the winner of their singles match set for the next morning.