“Challengers” cast and director explain that intense ending: 'Everyone's right and everyone's wrong'

"People are going to have an opinion, and a very visceral one," Mike Faist says.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Challengers.

If the final scene of Challengers didn't leave you yelling, "Come on!" then what movie were you watching?!

Director Luca Guadagnino's sizzling tennis drama about a complicated love triangle spends most of its two-hour runtime building to the explosive match between former friends-turned-rivals, Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor). Watching helplessly from the stands is Patrick's former flame (and Art's current wife/coach), Tashi (Zendaya). All the pieces are in place for Tashi's meticulously built house of cards to come crashing down, but the ending turns out to be as intense as it is unexpected.

Just don't expect to find any clear answers in those final moments. Challengers opts not to reveal who wins the match. Or who Tashi loves most. Or who she ends up with. Instead, the story ends with all three points of the love triangle sharing a sexually charged moment of, well, really great tennis.

"That's the thing: everyone's right and everyone's wrong," Faist tells Entertainment Weekly. "The exciting thing about this film is that people are going to have an opinion, and a very visceral one, and one that allows people to have that kind of an exchange where it's like, 'I think this,' 'No, I think this, and here's why,' and they actually are coming out of the theater engaged in a conversation about the story. People are leaving the theater engaged still with the material itself, and that's in itself the joy for me."

<p>MGM /Courtesy Everett </p> Zendaya in "Challengers"

MGM /Courtesy Everett

Zendaya in "Challengers"

The backstory

Patrick and Art, best friends since grade school, befriend Tashi at a junior tennis tournament. At the time, she was a superstar prodigy widely regarded as the future of the sport. Both boys are infatuated with her, and can't believe their luck when she shows up to their shoddy hotel room one night and engages them in a three-way makeout session. But when they ask for her number, she says she'll only give it to the winner of their tournament match the next day. Patrick defeats his buddy, and he and Tashi end up dating through college. Art never gives up, though, and when Tashi suffers an injury that ends her playing career, he swoops in as her protector after she fights with Patrick.

The movie then jumps years later, with Tashi and Art married parents, and Patrick out of the picture. Art has become a tennis phenomenon with Tashi's coaching, while Patrick flounders on the periphery of the sport. But when Art hits a mental roadblock in his game that jeopardizes his legacy, Tashi enlists him in a Challengers tournament where she hopes playing lesser competition will help him get his confidence back. Little does she know, Patrick, who has never lost a match to Art, is enrolled in the very same tournament. While she's still angry with Patrick over their old fight, Tashi still has feelings for him. She's frustrated with Art's lack of confidence and thoughts of retirement, and can't help being attracted to Patrick's bottomless bravado. When she tries and fails to bribe Patrick into throwing the match, the two end up sleeping together instead.

Match point

The next day, when the match starts going south for Patrick, he taunts Art by subtly revealing that he slept with Tashi again...the night before. This finally goads Art into playing with the reckless abandon Tashi always wanted from him. The duo exchange haymaker volleys back and forth until Art leaps clean over the net and spikes the ball. Patrick doesn't even attempt to make a play on the ball; instead, he catches Art in mid-air in a climactic bear hug.

The last we see of the match, the two men are embracing and smiling. Tashi unleashes a primal scream from the stands, shouting, "Come on!" — a callback to an identical scream earlier in the film when she's dominating her opponent pre-injury. The exaltation is Tashi's ultimate approval, a sign that her "little white boys," as she refers to them, have finally played to their potential.

<p>MGM</p> Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'


Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'

What it means

That's where the film ends, with the match still in the middle of a tiebreaker. We'll never know who wins, but that's not the point. Art regains his confidence, Patrick gets to play great tennis with his best friend again, and Tashi experiences the fire of her glory days vicariously through her two lovers.

"At the end of the film, they have found each other," O'Connor says. "They've been all searching for a way and getting it terribly wrong, searching for a way to satisfy that need, that hunger for each other. And they're all trying to find their way in different ways. For Art, maybe it's getting out of tennis and being with the family, reconnecting with his wife. For Tashi, it's finding that satisfaction in tennis that she lost by having her career stunted. For Patrick, it's also finding that feeling of flow when he was playing tennis with Art as a youngster, or watching Tashi playing tennis as a youngster."

The moment Patrick hints to Art that Tashi cheated on him is the moment that O'Connor thinks they've all finally come back together. "In the end, despite the messiest way of navigating themselves there, Patrick realizes in a moment that he's got both of them there, forgets everyone else in the stadium, and it's just like, 'I know exactly how to get him into a place that will satisfy me, him, and her, and let's just have that,'" he says.

"I think it's like, 'Oh s---,' and then the joy," O'Connor adds. "One of my favorite moments in the film is the smirk — when I do that, I smirk, and I was like, 'Please God, use the take where Mike smirked back because if it's just me, I'm a psycho.' And so I smirk and then it comes to the realization of Art going like, 'I'm livid, but, oh, yes.'"

"The slow-mo!" Zendaya adds.

<p>MGM</p> Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'


Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers'

The director confirms that the ending brings everything full circle to the trio's pivotal hotel room make-out. "They are acting out for 13 years the possibility of going back to that hotel room to find again that beautiful moment of burgeoning desires and innocence," Guadagnino says. "And at the same time, to feel at ease with one another, the way they were there. So, throughout the entire arc, that's what they're trying to do. And finally, with the rivalry at that heightened level, the triangle finally found itself sitting in the same place, but now on the court."

That's why, the director explains, the movie doesn't end with any concrete statements about who wins the match or Tashi's heart. It's all about the match itself. "I needed to get this very, very visually amped up and really immersed for the audience to understand how much it meant for them not to win over the other, but to be back together, all of them," Guadagnino says.

Game, set, match.

— Additional reporting from Gerrad Hall

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