Challengers, Explained: The Love Triangle, Real Life Story, Ambiguous Ending

Challengers, the new Luca Guadagnino film starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist as tennis champs caught in a love triangle began garnering interest as soon as it was announced. And while it certainly does feature some steamy moments, it turns out that the film is about much more than just the average competition-over-a-girl love triangle that we often encounter on film. So what is Challengers really about? Let’s unpack that, plus take a look at the real-life origins of the story and what that wild ending really represents.

The Power (and Pain) of Three

Initial promos and reviews of the film pretty much all focused on how sexy and racy the film is, so it came as a surprise to some that while the film does have it’s sexy moments, that isn’t the focal point of the film. The threesome that got so much press before release, actually… stops before they really go all the way – and that is because of the thing the film really wants to unpack: power. Before we dive in, let’s take a look at the story’s set up:

The film follows three highly skilled tennis players – Tashi, Art, and Patrick – on a non-chronological journey through their relationship. Art and Patrick met as kids in a tennis tournament, and then met Tashi at a tournament as high schoolers. They were all very good, but she was the true rising star in the tennis world.

“Tashi Donaldson, she’s gonna turn her whole family into millionaires. She’ll have a fashion line, a foundation…”

They’re all instantly drawn to one another, and Tashi instantly clocks their very close relationship (which the movie never dives too far into, but we can feel suggestions of in lingering shots) – but they say they don’t have a problem that they’re both into her.

“He’s asking for your number, and so am I.” “You both want my number?”

This is what leads to the steamy threesome moment from the trailers that sparked so much interest online. But this doesn’t just end up being some run-of-the-mill hookup – what this scene really allows us to see is how Tashi so enjoys being in control; and not just of the boys individually, but of their relationship with each other. She stops things short of going all the way, but this set up – the shifting power, the underlying spark – is the thread that connects the entire film.

Tashi is the force that pulls Art and Patrick together (literally) but also the spark that blows up their relationship. After stopping the threesome, she says she’ll give her number to whoever wins the match the next day – which ends up being Patrick, leading to them dating for some time. But then when Tashi is injured in a match – and Patrick isn’t there but Art is – the sands shift again and she leaves Patrick for Art. The trio are clearly physically and romantically drawn to each other in various ways, but the real thing that connects them (and lights the fire in all of their relationships) is an underlying jealousy. This undercurrent of rivalry keeps them going and connected – and when it disappears, so too do their sparks for life. After Tashi’s injury and her getting with Art, they don’t see Patrick again for years. And during this time, everyone’s drive begins to drain.

Tashi, no longer able to play herself, becomes Art’s coach, but is clearly more interested in pushing him to do what she wasn’t able to than helping him for his own sake. Art does become a success, but loses all of his fire for the game (and judging by his constant sullenness, life itself.) It’s a dynamic we often see on screen between overbearing parents and children, where the parent desperately pushes the child towards the achievements that they, for whatever reason, weren’t able to attain themselves. In the same way, Tashi uses Art as a stand-in for herself, and so becomes angry at him because of what she perceives as failures of her own. Trying to reach the unbelievably high bar Tashi has set does propel him to superstardom, but it also zaps both of them of their love for the game and each other. Patrick’s career went in the other direction, straight into the gutter – leaving him sleeping in his car and playing low-level matches for the prize money to get by. It’s not until they all cross paths again that those dormant, vibrant feelings begin rekindling.

“You want my best piece of advice? You want me to coach you? Okay, quit!”

This love triangle is notable because it does function in all directions – it’s not just the guys fighting over Tashi, but also working through their own complicated relationship.

“I think in every triangle, and in every relationship where there is jealousy at stake, the triangle has to touch all of the corners, and the jealousy has to be directed in every direction.” Luca Guadagnino, director

We see them all trying to figure out how to get power in their own lives, and power over others, and power in the world at large. And there are no ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’ here – everyone makes mistakes and hurts the others and themselves. Each character provides the other with something integral to their core being, and without it they feel that emptiness, even if they can’t quite place their finger on it. Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes told Vulture, “Even in a relationship between two people, there’s always a sort of imagined third presence… [F]or a lot of people, it’s, like, Jesus… Or it’s their conception of themselves, or their parents, or their friends. But in a love triangle, that third presence is not imagined.” We’ve seen how this realization of that third presence can completely throw an existing friendship into chaos in films like the iconic Y Tu Mama Tambien.

“You mark your territory and quarrel, but you just want to screw each other!” Y Tu Mama Tambien

Recent indie hit and Oscar nominee Past Lives also explored this dynamic of being pulled between two people and two lives, feeling like you’ll have to leave behind a part of yourself regardless of which path you’ll take.

“I liked you for who you are… and who you are is a person who leaves. But for Aurthur, you are a person who stays.” Past Lives

And that film was, interestingly, written and directed by Celine Song, who is married to Challenger’s screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes – though he’s been adamant in interviews that the fact that they’ve both recently written films on this topic isn’t a reflection of issues in their real-life relationship.

Challengers, of course, makes comparisons to the ‘back and forth’ of relationships and the ping-ponging of tennis, but zooming out, we also see the similarities in the way that acute focus on a feat of athleticism and love can both rapidly narrow your focus. In film, the moment someone sees their true love is often not framed that differently than the moment an athlete focuses as they’re about to achieve their goal – the world stops, everything slows down, everything zeroing on that one point of interest. And here, that point of focus is both – the game and the love, or rather, loves. Athletes often talk about chasing that moment of zen, where everything comes together – and we’ve all been trained by movies to look for that in love to some degree. And here we see these characters circling this moment of their own, not quite knowing that that’s what they’ve been searching for – until it finally clicks.

But before we unpack that ending, let’s take a second to look at the real life stories that inspired the film.


Kuritzkes has stated that his initial inspiration for the story was watching the 2018 US Open match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. It was an intense game between two immensely talented players, and also had a spark of drama when Williams received a penalty that she disagreed with. Kuritzkes was drawn in both by the power of their playing but also the inherent drama of the sport – two people alone on this world stage, every move amplified and analyzed. He also read eight-time Grand Slam champion and former world number 1 Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography to understand more about the psychology of what it’s really like to play on that level.

But another similarity to real life that fans – and, notably, Serena Williams herself – noticed was with the story of Roger Federer and his wife Mirka. They were both rising tennis stars in the late 90s and early 2000s, and got together at the 2000 Olympics where they both played for the Swiss team. Mirka had to retire in 2002 due to a foot injury, and so went on to help Roger with his career – particularly with marketing and scheduling – until he retired in 2022. Williams noted the general similarity of the stories in her review of the film for Vogue. She also pointed out that while Tashi and Art were clearly codependent in a negative way, at that high level of sports it’s key to have people close to you that care for you. “If you’re on the top, no one speaks to you… You’re alone so much that you end up being really dependent on your team and their opinions.” Thankfully Roger and Mirka do seem to have a much more supportive relationship than Art and Tashi. While Art and Tashi might not have the loving relationship of Roger and Mirka, they did end up with a kind of happy ending of their own…


Challengers ends with Patrick and Art finally going head-to-head once again as they’re matched in the Challenger event. Both have lost their lust for life and love of the game. Art was pushed into the event by Tashi, in the hopes that it would restart his drive to win so that he could finally win the Open – and she even tells him that, once again, their entire relationship rests on a game.

“If you don’t win tomorrow, I’ll leave you.”

She had also, though, gone to Patrick and asked him to throw the game so that Art could win – and then slept with him. The match is rather lackluster until, crucially, Patrick signals to Art that he had – again – slept with Tashi. At first Art is pissed, but we quickly see that this has relit a fire within him. They rocket the ball back and forth, with Tashi sitting in the middle on the sidelines. Who actually wins in the end is left ambiguous, because that’s not what really matters.

“When you watch tennis, you go to see it live or you see it on television, it’s a very objective thing. So I wanted to make it subjective.” Luca Guadagnino, director

Kuritzkes told Vulture, “Although the stands at a Challenger are mostly empty, the players’ emotions are just as if they were at the U.S. Open because they’re fighting for their lives.” The real win is that all three of them have, at least for a moment, been jolted back into that vibrant, emotional state they had all lost so long ago. They had all been worried about glory and fame, sure, but what they had really been searching for was that feeling. They’ve been forced to confront their roads not taken, their poor choices, their failures head on – and at the very end break through to find that fire of life that had been snuffed out so long ago. The real win in life is finding that thing, or person – or people – that sets your heart ablaze.