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How Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka's controversial 2018 US Open final inspired Zendaya's tennis movie 'Challengers'

Olivia Singh   

How Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka's controversial 2018 US Open final inspired Zendaya's tennis movie 'Challengers'
  • "Challengers" screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes said the film was inspired by the US Open.
  • Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka's 2018 final struck Kuritzkes as an "intensely cinematic situation."

Luca Guadagnino's "Challengers" isn't based on any real tennis players, but an infamous moment from the US Open unintentionally planted the seed for the film's juicy premise.

In "Challengers," a make-or-break tennis match serves as the narrative framework. The drama stars Zendaya as Tashi Duncan, a tennis prodigy turned coach whose competitive career ends after an on-court knee injury. The movie follows Tashi's complicated relationship with doubles partners and best friends Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), which begins when they meet as junior tennis players.

Years later, Art, now married to Tashi and coached by her, and Patrick, her ex-boyfriend, face off in the finals of a lower-tier challenger event that couldn't possibly be more high-stakes for their personal lives.

During a recent press conference attended by Business Insider, screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes explained that he became fascinated by the sport after watching Naomi Osaka defeat Serena Williams in straight sets during the women's singles final at the 2018 US Open.

The then-20-year-old's win was overshadowed by a controversial call made by chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who gave Williams three code violations for receiving coaching, racquet abuse, and verbal abuse after calling him a "thief" for docking her a point.

As the incident unfolded during the second set, with the tournament referee and a WTA supervisor stepping in to assess the situation, Osaka, who grew up idolizing Williams, kept her composure. After the match ended, Williams embraced an emotional Osaka during the trophy ceremony and told the crowd to "make this the best moment we can" and "be positive."

"Immediately, this struck me as this intensely cinematic situation where you're all alone on your side of the court and there's this one other person in this massive tennis stadium who cares as much about what happens to you as you do, but you can't talk to them," Kuritzkes said.

"For whatever reason, it just clicked in my mind, Kuritzkes continued. "Well, what if you really needed to talk about something? And what if it was something beyond tennis? What if it was something that was going on with the two of you? And what if it involved the person on the other side of the net? How would you have that conversation and how could you communicate the tension of that situation using the tools that are specific to film?"

"That was really where it all started for me," the screenwriter said.

"Challengers" is now playing in theaters.


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