28th April 2024

Challengers ending, explained

Who won? What does it all mean? Spoilers follow for the new Zendaya movie.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor in Challengers movie
Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in Challengers // Photo: Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Challengers—starring Zendaya—is the most dizzying and glorious ride of the year. The movie begins and ends with the final in New Rochelle between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). As the two duke it out over three gruelling sets of tennis, director Luca Guadagnino liberally deploys ultra slo-mo, extending and stretching the dramatic tension. In between, for over two hours, the trio involved in the tennis-fuelled love triangle lust, clash, bicker, and comfort one another. Friendships crack, dynamics change. The animosity between Art and Patrick builds, primarily thanks to their mutual desire for Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). Jealousy, resentment, and betrayal fuel that too.

The sauna scene—where Patrick swings his dick like he’s marking territory—is where the men are at their most bitter. That carries over into the Challenger final, where they whack the ball at one another like they are fighting for survival. Patrick takes the first set and Art the second. And then, deep into the third and final set of the match, Patrick signals to Art that he slept with Tashi last night by placing the ball in the throat of the racquet. Realising he’s trying to throw the match, Art simply stands in his place and allows Patrick’s underarm serve to pass him. That takes the match into a tiebreak, which is where Challengers ends. But the match doesn’t.

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers movie

Challengers review: ace

With Zendaya leading a stellar trio, director Luca Guadagnino concocts a heady mix of jealousy, ambition, and attraction. It’s terrific.

Okay, hold on, what’s a tiebreak? If you don’t watch tennis, some of the terminology used in the movie—and in the paragraph above—might have been alien to you. So, before we talk about the Challengers ending, let’s (briefly) talk about tennis.

Tennis, explained

As the chair umpire notes early in Challengers, the match between Art and Patrick will be made up of three tiebreak sets. The first person to win two sets wins.

In tennis, a set is made up of games. And games are made up of points. The first point is called “15”, the second “30”, and the third “40”. If you have zero points, it’s called “love”. To win a game, you must win four points with a gap of two. If you end up at 40–40, it’s called deuce. The person who wins the next point gets an “advantage” and the next point wins the game. But if you can’t win two points in a row, you end up at deuce again. (Tennis can be an infinite game.)

An example of what can happen without a tiebreak, this Wimbledon match lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes and ended with a final set score of 70–68.

To win a set, you must win six games with a gap of two. That means you can win 6–0, 6–1, 6–2, 6–3, and 6–4. You can also win 7–5. But if the score ends up tied at six games apiece, you end up with a tiebreak. This is what happened with Art and Patrick in the third and final set. (Traditionally, you would keep playing until someone could take the set by a gap of two games. The matches became too long, so a tiebreak was introduced.)

In tiebreaks, you must win a minimum of seven points. As with games and sets, you must win by a gap of two. If you end up at 6–6 in a tiebreak, the scoring continues until one player can win two points in a row. Challengers never shows us the full thing—the movie ends after the first point in the tiebreak as Art smashes the ball onto Patrick’s side and they embrace at the net. (Art actually lost that point because you’re not allowed to touch the net during play. But that’s beside the point.)

Now that you know the basics of tennis, let’s go back to the movie’s ending.

Challengers ending: who won?

Tensions are at an all-time high as the Challenger final reaches its conclusion. Both Art and Patrick have received a code violation (for obscenity), and in Patrick’s case, two more for arguing with a lineswoman and later, breaking his racquet. (That last one cost him an entire game, which is why the score went from 6–2, 4–5 in the second set to 6–2, 4–5, 0–1 at the start of the third set, if you noticed.)

Meanwhile, Tashi has been passive for nearly all of it, barely even looking at times as the ball has zipped from left to right and back again. The only time she’s shown any emotion is when she stood up and walked away at the end of the second set. But that changes as we enter the tiebreak. Actually, just before it. As Patrick double faults on his serve—you lose the point if you fail to correctly serve twice in a row—Tashi wonders if he is about to throw the match.

But at 30–40 and down match point, Patrick places the ball in the throat of the racquet as he’s about to serve. This goes back to the moment 13 years ago when Art had asked Patrick to serve like him—to indicate whether he had slept with Tashi. A stunned Art, realising what Patrick is saying, is frozen in his spot as Patrick’s serve blasts past him. Art looks over at Tashi, turns away and utters “F••k off”, earning a second code violation from the chair umpire and losing the next point.

Josh O'Connor and Zendaya in Challengers movie
Josh O’Connor and Zendaya in Challengers // Photo: Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In that moment, Art has understood everything. He knows that Tashi asked Patrick to throw the match (explaining the earlier double fault) and he has no desire to be handed a win in that fashion. Art doesn’t even want to face Patrick, but the umpire forces him to, telling him to assume the position. With Art unwilling to participate, Patrick throws an underarm serve, pushing the match into a tiebreak.

Why do Art and Patrick hug? And why does Tashi cheer?

This is where things get spicy. As Art opens with the final set tiebreak with his serve, the two former best friends play a gruelling point. The camera turns into the ball, escalating the tension. The ground becomes transparent and as the camera looks up above, the duo looms large. As the ball is played short, both Art and Patrick approach the net and begin to volley at one another.

Patrick doesn’t catch one shot well enough, allowing Art to smash the ball. As he jumps to do just that, he towers over Patrick who watches half in terror seemingly. Art, caught in the moment, nearly falls over the net and collides with his opponent. But Patrick catches him just in time and the two embrace. Tashi jumps up from her chair and shouts “Come on!” Challengers cuts to black. Wait, what?

What just happened? Many have been wondering who won the match, but the point is it doesn’t matter. For the entirety of Challengers, we’ve seen these two teenage best friends drift away from each other. To the point that they haven’t spoken in years, ever since Tashi injured her knee at Stanford. What began as friendly competition over a girl evolved into jealousy—and something much worse—that has taken over their lives.

When Art and Patrick meet in the Challenger final, they are essentially sworn enemies. Art might have it all—a six-time Grand Slam winner and a globetrotting life with Tashi—but his life is slipping away. He’s unhappy, tired, and wants to retire. And if he doesn’t beat Patrick, Tashi will leave him. She’s said as much to his face. But Art has never beaten Patrick in a match. Patrick weaponises all that.

As the tiebreak begins, for the first time in a long time, Art is not playing for anything. Until that point, he’s pushed himself in his career for Tashi. It’s her hunger for excellence that has driven Art to Grand Slam wins. But knowing that Tashi has betrayed him frees Art. His career is essentially over. His marriage is likely over. At that moment, he’s just playing tennis. Against a guy who used to be his best friend.

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers movie
Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor in Challengers // Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

For me, this is what the hug indicates. Tashi drove a wedge between Art and Patrick—they both wanted her and, by leading them both on, she became an all-consuming force in their lives. And after years of agony, they have found their way back to each other.

It’s liberation for Tashi too. After all, she was concerned about being a “homewrecker” from the start. She’s happy the two are friends again, having acknowledged the brotherhood that existed deep under the hate that had developed over the years. It’s that jubilation that results in her “Come on!” Tennis is everything for Tashi and she’s glad to see how it’s bridged the divide between Art and Patrick.

Akhil Arora

2 Comments on “Challengers ending, explained

Tennis lover
7th May 2024 at 8:26 pm

I am curious about Art’s final comment towards Patrick in the sauna, questioning what purpose Patrick served for all the women he had one night stands with.

Akhil Arora
7th May 2024 at 8:37 pm

Do you think there’s more to it than just a jab? The sauna scene was them at their most bitter and petty, imo


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