‘Challengers’ Writer Says This Real-Life Tennis Couple Helped Inspire the Movie

Serena Williams clocked the influence in her own review of the film

Mike Faist and Zendaya in "Challengers" (Amazon MGM Studios)

The idea for “Challengers” was planted in the mind of writer Justin Kuritzkes in 2018 when he watched Naomi Osaka best Serena Williams in straight sets at the U.S. Women’s Open, but the characters played by Zendaya and Mike Faist were also inspired in part by real-life tennis couple Roger Federer and his wife Mirka.

Kuritzkes told GQ that he watched Roger Federer take on Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2019 when he noticed Mirka in the stands.

“She looked so stressed out, every point,” Kuritzkes said. “I was watching her and just thinking, ‘Why are you so stressed out? You guys have all the money in the world. You’ve won 20 grand slams. What’s so stressful to you? It has to be something else.’”

He started digging into Mirka’s story and learned that, when she and Federer met, they were both tennis champions. After a foot injury sidelined Mirka, she took on the role of managing Federer’s career. In the film, the career of Zendaya’s Tashi also ends early due to an injury, and she instead focuses on training her husband.

Federer has often credited his wife as the backbone of his success. After winning the Australian Open in 2017, he told reporters, “She’s been there when I had no titles and she’s still here 89 titles later, so she had a big part to play in [the win]. She had a big part to play in it – she knows it, I know it, everybody knows it.”

Of the Williams-Osaka matchup that also inspired the movie, Kuritzkes said, “Immediately, that struck me as really cinematic. You’re all alone on the court, there’s this one person in the stands who cares as much about what happens to you as you do, but you can’t talk to them.”

“And what if you guys had to talk about something really important and really dramatic beyond tennis, something about your lives, and something that included the person on the other side of a net? How would you have that conversation without breaking the rules?” he continued. “And so, the idea for the movie planted itself in my head in a very vague, sort of unformed way.”

Williams had a visible reaction during the match after she was penalized for receiving coaching from the sidelines. Players aren’t allowed to be coached during Grand Slam matches. After chair umpire Carlos Ramos thought he saw Williams’ coach gesturing in the stands, he gave her a warning. Williams later smashed a tennis racket, which is an automatic code violation in the sport.

This resulted in her losing a point as a penalty. Williams and Ramos engaged in a heated debate in which the tennis great said Ramos stole the point from her — and he dished out a second point violation for verbal abuse. Williams ultimately lost 6-2, 6-4.

In a review for Vogue, Williams herself drew a comparison between the characters of Tashi and Art to Federer and Mirka.

“A lot of male tennis players really rely on their wives and girlfriends,” Williams wrote. “Just look at someone like Roger Federer: he used to actually hit with his wife, Mirka, and they were like glue.”

“You see that so much in men’s tennis, especially with the players that are doing really well, but I was like that, too,” Williams added. “If you’re on the top, no one speaks to you. You’re alone so much that you end up being really dependent on your team and their opinions. And, I mean, I was codependent with Venus at the beginning — worse than Art with Tashi.”

“Challengers” enjoyed a cool $15 million opening weekend, making it director Luca Guadagnino’s most successful project to date.


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