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Jake MartinJune 07, 2024
Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor star in a scene from the movie “Challengers.” The OSV News classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. (OSV News photo/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

When my fellow Jesuit and pickleball enthusiast (ugh!) Andrew Laguna turned to me after viewing Luca Guadagnino’s recently released film, “Challengers,” and said that it was the first time he ever found tennis to be remotely interesting, my suspicions were confirmed: “Challengers” has made tennis sexy and cool again.

Mind you, men’s tennis, at least, has not been sexy and/or cool since the heyday of Björn Borg in the 1970s. Having played tennis the greater portion of my life, most of which has been lived after the era of that sexy, cool Swede, I can attest to the fact that while tennis has been many things—compelling, frustrating, boring, uplifting—men’s tennis has rarely, if ever, been cool. And certainly never sexy, and just to cut you off at the pass, no, not Andre Agassi. Between Agassi’s on-air dedication of the Bette Midler ballad, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” to his astonishingly uncool brother, Phil, during an interview in 1990, to the revelation that his famous mullet was in fact a wig, any semblance of coolness or sexiness that tennis’s one-time not-so-bad boy might have had went past him quicker than a Pete Sampras serve (and yes, I am a fan of the ridiculously uncool Pete).

“Challengers,” from Justin Kuritzkes’s screenplay, is a formulaic sports romance film: Two up-and-coming men’s tennis players, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), are best friends and rivals who both fall for the same woman, top women’s tennis prospect Tashi (Zendaya), which leads them to compete for her affections over the next 13 years. However, the boilerplate narrative becomes refreshingly provocative in Guadagnino’s always stylish hands.

Guadagnino maximizes Trent Reznor (he of Nine Inch Nails fame) and Atticus Ross’s score along with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography to create a slick, sensual and at times thought-provoking exploration into the evolution of relationships platonic, erotic and, well, sometimes both. Credit must be given to Zendaya for turning what could have been literally a “trophy” role into an exploration of the benefits and pitfalls of female empowerment in the contemporary age.

Professional tennis in the real world—as opposed to the reel world—is not quite as cool or sexy. For one thing, the never really very sexy (but always fascinating and at times admirable) “Big Three” of men’s tennis appears to be going out with a long, slow, creaking murmur. Roger Federer put away his racquets at some point during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, while his confreres Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic attempt to carry on with diminishing returns.

Italy's Jannik Sinner runs to play a shot against Christopher Eubanks of the U.S. during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Monday, May 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard)
Italy's Jannik Sinner runs to play a shot against Christopher Eubanks of the U.S. during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament in Paris, Monday, May 27. (AP Photo/Aurelien Morissard)

Nadal’s attempt at a comeback in 2024 has been marred by injury, and his few on-court appearances, including his first-round loss at the French Open last week to Alexander Zverev at an event he has all but owned his entire career, have not offered much hope. Djokovic, the youngest of the triad, has followed up a terrific 2023 (winning three of four major titles) with a thus-far titleless 2024. Djokovic has spoken recently about feeling torn between spending time with family—having broken most of the sport’s important records—and continuing the intense physical regime necessary to remain a top player, particularly one who is now a lot closer to 40 than to 30. The events of the past week at Roland Garros, wherein the once bionic Serb—a man who not too long ago was thought to be the technical and physical Platonic ideal of the tennis player—had to withdraw from his quarterfinal match, having suffered a meniscus tear in the previous round. Djokovic has already had surgery, but the injury will likely keep him out of Wimbledon next month, a title he has won on seven occasions.

The decline of the “Big Three” has allowed for the emergence of a new triptych in men’s tennis: Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, Italy’s Jannick Sinner and Denmark’s Holger Rune. Alcaraz has already attained the world’s top ranking and most of its big titles at only 21 years of age; however, he has shown vulnerability since defeating Djokovic in an epic five-set final at Wimbledon last year, failing to win a major event since. The Spaniard has shown a resurgence in form at Roland Garros dropping only one set in his first five matches and defeating Sinner in a five-set semifinal.

The 22-year-old Sinner seemingly picked up where Alcaraz dropped off after Wimbledon last year, defeating Djokovic multiple times and winning his first major title in January at the Australian Open. Sinner continued his winning ways through the early part of 2024 before injuring his hip during the European spring clay court season and entering the French Open, like his rival Alcaraz, in questionable physical and psychological form. Djokovic’s quarter-final exit from Roland Garros means that Sinner will garner the number-one ranking regardless of his loss to Alcaraz in the semis of the French.

Rune is the least accomplished by far of the new “Big Three,” and is perhaps best known for some odd coaching choices (former number one Boris Becker, just out of jail and unable to leave the United Kingdom) and having an incredibly involved tennis parent (his mother, Aneke). Rune was already a top-five player at 20 years old, but he has struggled of late and as of the start of the French Open he is out of the top 10.

All of this is to say that tennis, as an individual sport, cannot rely—outside of its four major events—on tournaments alone for its popularity and financial success. Therefore, tennis needs stars. And right now, with its three shining lights finally sinking into the horizon and its three new hopefuls with questionable futures, tennis is in a very fragile place. This situation is not at all helped by the decision of the A.T.P., the governing body of the men’s tour, to enter into a “strategic partnership” agreement with Saudi Arabia earlier this year, with the possibility of a Saudi-backed combined men’s and women’s professional tour in the not-so-distant future.

Besides the myriad problems that the Saudi-backed LIV tour has brought to professional golf, there is, of course, the more pressing issue of the Saudi government’s terrible human rights record, particularly against women and the L.G.B.T.Q. community. A professional alignment with the Saudis would be terrible for the sport both in terms of its optics and its ethics, as it forces tennis players (and officials) to ask themselves the question: “Just how much money is worth being complicit in human rights abuses?”

The answer to that, I can guarantee you, is neither cool nor sexy.

More: Sports / Film

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