Luca Guadagnino sets the tone in the opening seconds of “Challengers”: every drop of sweat, every scar, every glance, and every beam of light carries far more than it appears. What seems like an ordinary match between one of the world’s best tennis players and another who can barely crack the top 200 is, in fact, a life-or-death game for those on the court, and one of manipulation and seduction for those watching.

I had to restrain myself from making any tennis puns (because by now, they must have all been made), but resisting this temptation is as hard as not getting caught up in the passion with which Guadagnino films the intertwining paths of Tashi (Zendaya), Patrick (Josh O’Connor), and Art (Mike Faist). She is a promising tennis player who has to stop playing after a severe knee injury. They are players at completely opposite stages of their careers: while Art is on his way to win the only Grand Slam he lacks, Patrick is what the circuit calls a journeyman, a player who needs to compete in countless tournaments to reach a ranking that allows him to enter another tournament to get a spot in a Grand Slam (phew).

The structure proposed by screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes places the trio’s story in flashbacks framed by a three-set match that culminates in the most intense of tie-breaks. Guadagnino plays with the audience in a plot as unpredictable as it is inevitable. The film’s setting in a challenger tournament represents a personal challenge for each of the characters.

Art wants to gain confidence and accumulate victories to enter the US Open with a title shot. Patrick simply wants to win the day’s prize money and have a place to sleep. The former shows up to play impeccably dressed head-to-toe, all sponsors in place, with a cadence visibly inspired by Roger Federer. The latter has a careless look, no sponsor even on his racket, and doesn’t seem like a wasted talent – what is that serve?

And what does Tashi want? Who is Tashi? This is the great point of fascination in the film, both for the characters and for Guadagnino. As a result, we, the viewers, also become mesmerized by Zendaya’s performance, which is quite different from the youthful roles that defined her in the MCU and the series Euphoria. Tashi commands the game, even though she is no longer on the court. The character understands that sports are the synthesis of all her relationships, and it’s intriguing to see such a complex construction in a woman.

Sitting in an uncomfortable chair for hours on end, watching a mediocre game, Tashi centralizes all the conflicts. She gets stimulated by every well-played point – even if she didn’t finish the point, she built it.

In this dance, Guadagnino creates a sensual and sometimes also witty film. It’s even surprising that “Challengers” shows no sex scenes – and that most of those that start in the film are interrupted by boredom or irritation from one of the involved parties – because the atmosphere created makes us feel like we’ve seen something extremely intimate for over two hours.