‘Challengers’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Who Wins The Final Match?

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Just the thought of talking about Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers makes me feel like I’m about to divulge things that I have no business knowing. And I guess that comes from the intruder’s discomfort, as though I know too many intimate things about these strangers I’ve come to find in Challengers. That is essentially one of the things that makes Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor’s film such a lingering experience. You know all these things about Art, Patrick, and Tashi. What do you do except discuss it?

Spoiler Alert


What happens in the film?

In terms of success, Art’s professional life as a tennis pro has been broadly satisfactory. And his personal life, which is all too connected to his professional one given that he’s married to his coach, Tashi, is going just as well. The entire thing hinges on her husband’s success being Tashi’s relief from the grief of a career that was ended by an injured knee. So you know an overall fall is inevitable in the case where he isn’t doing too well on the court, and that’s what happens. To revive his spirit with a few pesky wins, Tashi preps him for a humble challenger competition. Almost a lifetime’s worth of intense emotions in love, friendship, betrayal, and the game simmer up when an old friend, Patrick, turns out to be the one Art’s supposed to beat in the final. 


What happened between Art, Patrick, and Tashi?

Since they were kids, Art and Patrick have spent more time together on court than they have with their families. And that should tell you enough about how close they are and why that is. Called Fire and Ice around the US Junior Open circle, Art and Patrick’s were such close friends that when they had a shared crush on tennis prodigy Tashi, she scrunched her nose at the idea of being the homewrecker. I can’t blame her for not watching and pitting two friends against each other. They were fascinated by Tashi’s regal swings and graceful ferocity on the court, and they were willing to bet that their friendship would survive the competition. Surprisingly, it kind of did, in a way. And I can see why they were so secure about their attachment. They found it playing competitive tennis, so why should a competition for love be any different? The first tangible move to impress Tashi was made by Patrick. He changed his mind about losing the next match for Art, as he’d promised him. To win Tashi, he’d have to win the match. So even though Tashi seemed to be drawn more to Art’s calmer air, she chose Patrick when he won the match. Guns were drawn. But Patrick was way more amused by Art’s crafty tricks and manipulations than livid. Tashi continuing to choose him even though she was around Art way more since they both went to Stanford was certainly a factor in Patrick’s feeling secure. 


How did Art, Patrick, and Tashi drift apart?

Tashi thought tennis was like a relationship. And maybe it was her wish to have a well-rounded life that pushed her to seek education at the cost of postponing pro championships. She was soaring so high that she forgot about the ground beneath. It only got real for her when her dreams crashed against them, and her career took a swift fall. A fight with Patrick messed with her head enough for her to land on her foot wrong on the court and get a career-death injury. Patrick was out. And Art flaunted his caring boyfriend skills and swept Tashi right off her feet. But the actual relationship only started when Tashi was reassured that Art’d still be obsessed with her even though she’d never play pro. And after she was hired as his coach and commitment was on the table for them both, Art had her hooked with his mastery with the racket and eventually as a lovesick husband and a great dad to their daughter Lily. Art’s performance on the court was perhaps the most consequential factor in their marriage. On Tashi’s part, it was her need for success in tennis—as a coach, if not as a player. It’s a sadly ironic turn in her life. Between the three of them, Tashi was the one who didn’t want to be someone who was limited to hitting a ball with a racket. But as the vision of her bright future in tennis faded, she became more obsessed with it than the two guys combined. Watching a girl she crushed in the US Junior Open now being a practically undefeatable champion in pro hits her like a gut punch. And lucky for Patrick, he happened to be in Atlanta when Tashi needed relief from that pain. That was the first time Tashi cheated on Art, and the love triangle came a full circle. 


Who wins the final match?

To understand all that is unsaid in the complicated, fervent dynamic between the three friends, you have to read between the lines and figure out who they are and what they want. Tennis has been everything to these people—the world and the creator of it. It’s been love itself in all its impassioned ups and downs, conflicts, and reconciliations. And since they’re connected by this practically spiritual devotion to this sport, tennis, and everything that has to do with tennis is how they communicate their most candid feelings. Patrick’s always been kind of eerily good at predicting what’s going to happen to the three of them. Tashi’s life chose its course following Patrick’s prediction at the Adidas party when they were in the Junior League. And as though he has a cursed mouth, Art’s grandma dies of a stroke, just like Patrick joked about when he made up his mind that he’d win the match to get Tashi’s number. A guy like that might’ve also predicted that he’d walk into his 30s running on empty, barely anything to show for a career in tennis, and living in his car. And I don’t know about you, but Patrick’s always seemed like the kind of guy who’d not be too bothered by that prospect. His estrangement from Art was the death of his fire. And maybe that was true for Art, too. The game lost its grip on him. And when you keep these in mind and think about Patrick’s proposal that Tashi needs to switch sides and coach him instead, you’ll see through what sounds like a dirty move and find the raw honesty in it. Love doesn’t exist as an independent emotion in Tashi and Art’s marriage. And like Patrick says, Art’s depleted his drive to play the game and wants to retire. No matter what Tashi says, she could never just stay in a marriage with Art where they’re just a rich couple focusing on the “foundation.” Tashi needs tennis. And Patrick’s late but exceptional hunger for redemption in the sport is what makes it so hard for Tashi to reject him. Her mouth says no while she pockets the note with Patrick’s number. We saw her infidelity coming a mile away. 

To read the final tie-breaker set better, you also need to acknowledge their individual headspaces. And the night before the match plays a determining role in that. Art may boast a truckload of Grand Slam titles, but he’s never beaten Patrick on the court. And even though he’s the one who got the girl, he could never really get over the fact that Tashi chose Patrick first. Art is not a straight shooter like Patrick. So while it’s easy for Patrick to admit that he’s missed playing with him, Art’s emotions are spearheaded by years worth of bitterness. But the sauna conversation does make his fear of losing his marriage to Patrick come to a head. And the night before the match, he comes clean to Tashi about his wish to retire and rip off the band-aid. You can see Tashi’s attempt at being kind over honest when Art asks her for reassurance. But she ends up speaking the uncomfortable truth and telling him that she’d leave him if he lost. She does want to save her marriage, though. She wouldn’t have turned to Patrick and asked him to lose the match if she didn’t want Art to change his mind about retiring. Her guard’s too feeble against how she feels for Patrick. She’s only known devotion from Art. So when Patrick slams her, she probably realizes how much she’s missed his unflinching honesty. And that’s what pulls her in and makes her let go of her inhibitions once more. 

It goes without saying that what we’re watching in the ending sequence of Challengers is more than a tennis match. With each sweaty, gusty swing of the racket, Art and Patrick—rivals in love and the game—are practically going back to being friends in love and the game. Once again, tennis becomes their most honest mode of communication, and Art and Patrick are talking again. And like it’s always been, Tashi’s a part of the conversation who’s not always privy to what’s cooking between Art and Patrick. Without the need for a word, Patrick’s just told Art that he’s slept with Tashi. Remember when Patrick and Tashi became a thing, and he was being a gentleman by not telling Art if they’d done the deed? Instead of saying it out loud, Patrick said it by imitating Art’s signature tic for the serve—touching the ball to the throat of the racket. He does the same thing when he’s serving for the tie-breaker set at the challenger finals. Just by the look on his face, you can see Art going through different stages of emotion as he processes everything that’s happening. Shock and rage have their turn before a cryptic smile takes over. And as the same smile crosses the net in between and shows up on Patrick’s face, the vibrant dynamic that’s been lost seems to be back. Art’s leap for a flying dunk right above the net makes him crash into Patrick’s arms. At that moment, I believe, winning meant a whole other thing for the two friends.

Challengers‘ ending doesn’t give us a clear winner. What it does give us is a vulnerable acknowledgment of love and longing between three people who’ve found their way back to each other in an odd way. If you ask me, Patrick’s decision to spill the uncomfortable truth about Tashi’s cheating on Art was his way of reigniting the fire that’s been out for a long time. Back when they were in college, and Art was visibly jealous over Patrick and Tashi getting serious, Patrick had the biggest smile seeing Art so lively and worked up about something. Maybe this is how Art was meant to fall back in love with tennis. And maybe ever since Patrick got to know that he’d be going up against his long-lost friend at a challenger tournament, he’d been aching to fix what’s been broken. Their lives, their games, and them. And about Tashi’s cheer at the ambiguous end of the tiebreaker, I think the match has given her plenty of reasons to be thrilled about. Before her stand the two people who basically embody everything that her world’s made of—tennis and love. We, of course, can’t know for sure what will become of Tashi and Art’s marriage, but that only goes with writer Justin Kuritzkes’ vision for the ending. He was content with the unspoken reconciliation that took place on that court. There are no winners or losers. Just three people who need each other are finally acknowledging it after a prolonged period of denial. I doubt that Art would want to retire after this. And I think Patrick will stick to the game now that he’s reunited with the friend who is his most beloved rival on the court. And as for Tashi, well, she did once tell them that she just wanted to watch a good match of tennis. And I think she may have just watched the best one yet. 


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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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