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Challengers review: "A pulsating tale that’s sure to get deuces flowing"

Anyone for tonsil tennis? It’s the least you’d expect from Luca Guadagnino, the Italian maestro who defiled a peach in Call Me by Your Name and made cannibalism look sexy in Bones and All. It’s hardly surprising, then, to see the ‘sport of kings’ receive a racy makeover in his stylish latest, in which the on-court rivalry between two friends turned adversaries – cool customer Art (Mike Faist) and wild card Patrick (Josh O’Connor) – comes with a sizzling undertow of erotic tension.

The nominal source of their antipathy is Zendaya’s Tashi, a Serena-ish prodigy turned exacting taskmistress who, having had her playing career curtailed by a cruel injury, has devoted herself to making husband Art the best he can be. A previous dalliance with Patrick when they were all promising up-and-comers, though, means her loyalties are nothing if not divided when her past and present partners come face to face again at a middling ‘challenger’ event.

But wait! Might Art and Patrick have their own private ball-game going on, one in which Tashi is merely a bystander? That’s the provocative proposition at the heart of Guadagnino’s drama, a tricksy affair story-wise in which three narrative threads – the trio’s amorous history, the run-up to the tournament and its sweat-drenched, grudge-match climax – are weaved together by writer Justin Kuritzkes into one serpentine, Dunkirkian tapestry.

Keeping a handle on these multiple/simultaneous time frames can occasionally be as arduous as the tennis itself, elevated here by DoP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom into a dizzying battle of attrition and wills (at one point the ball becomes his camera’s PoV as it zooms from racquet to racquet, while elsewhere it’s a projectile fired so directly at the viewer one almost feels obliged to duck).

Guadagnino, however, ensures things are always entertaining, one pivotal clinch involving two of his protagonists – a parking-lot embrace in the middle of a windstorm, incongruously scored by an angelic boys’ choir singing Welsh hymn Levy-Dew – reaching an almost operatic level of sensuality and emotion.

It might be too heady a brew for some, especially those whose appreciation of tennis is limited to strawberries and cream. On the acting front, though, it’s a virtual grand slam, Zendaya, Faist, and particularly O’Connor fine-tuning their characters’ 13-year romantic imbroglio into a lusty love match for the ages.

Challengers is in UK cinemas and US theaters from April 26.

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