Challengers follows Tashi, a former tennis prodigy turned coach, married to Art, a champion on a losing streak. Her strategy for redemption takes a turn when Art’s success hinges on a match against Patrick – Art’s former doubles partner and best friend, and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend. The result? A steamy, dramatic love triangle that takes swings both on and off the court. 

Or at least, that’s clearly what Challengers wanted to be. I’m not sure it really delivers.

Let’s start with what Challengers gets right: it pulls together a talented trio of actors under a director with a distinct vision. Zendaya (Tashi), Mike Faist (Art), and Josh O’Conner (Patrick) are all actors that boast a collection of accolades, including nods from the Emmys and BAFTAs. So it follows that Challengers delivers with its lead performances. When Tashi puts someone in their place, or when Art flashes a look like a kicked puppy you just want to comfort, or when Patrick moves a chair with frankly more rizz than should be possible, you understand exactly why these actors were brought on for this film.

Similarly, Academy Award-nominated director Luca Guadagnino obviously contributed his unique vision. Guadagnino takes some big stylistic swings with Challengers, and that definitely gives the film some much-needed edge. A lot of those heavily stylized choices worked for me: music fit for a nightclub adds a flash of excitement and drama to otherwise dry moments; a close-up of Tashi as she strides away from someone, bob haircut swinging in slow motion, stands out. And while I can’t necessarily say I enjoyed the dizzying “tennis ball POV” shots Guadagnino threw in, I can at least respect that he was shaking up the visual format to keep things interesting.

Mike Faist as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS

But neither the performances nor Guadagnino’s vision is enough to save a story that isn’t quite what you expect and never totally manages to capture your attention the way it should. For a film that clocks in at over two hours – and attempts to incorporate over a decade of history between these three characters – it feels like not much actually happens.

Perhaps worst of all is the way Challengers so clearly should have centered around Tashi, but the film never feels like it truly locks onto her. The way her life changes over the course of the story is huge – from teen tennis prodigy to postponing going pro to attend college, to an injury ending her career before it ever began, to her relationship with Patrick ending and her relationship with Art beginning, to becoming Art’s coach, and a wife and a mother, to seeing Art’s star begin to fade. There’s so much story and potential for this character, but it always feels like Challengers is just skimming the surface with Tashi, never going all-in on her.

Even the marketing for the film framed Tashi as the focal point, playing up the “maneater” angle. I wanted to see full-on, gaslight-gatekeep-girlboss manipulation – not a woman just hovering like a satellite around two guys’ careers. (Side note: this is one of those stories where none of the drawn-out drama would have happened if two dudes just admitted they wanted to hook up with each other.) In the reality of how Challengers plays out, the “maneater” aspect comes across as distant and watered-down most of the time. It’s all less dramatic, less interesting for the characters, and all around less compelling than it could have been.

Zendaya as Tashi in Challengers

Oh, and speaking of the marketing framing? Sorry to everyone who was looking forward to some sort of steamy ménage à trois with this one. No spoilers, but that’s just… not really how things go down. After watching the film, I’m surprised that it billed itself as such a strong “sexy love triangle” while having zero actual sex scenes. (I guess maybe that counts as a spoiler? Oops.) Don’t get me wrong, Challengers isn’t totally bereft of romantic drama and sexual tension. But much like the use of Tashi’s character, it just didn’t deliver on nearly the level it could have.

For me, the nail in the coffin is that Challengers ends abruptly right at the moment things really get interesting. The last 20 minutes or so sets up the stakes and drama I wanted throughout the rest of the film. Then, you blink and it’s all over. Game-set-match. Better luck next tournament, I guess.

Challengers premieres in theaters April 26.