Brad Gilbert Took the Cast of Challengers to Tennis School

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

The game of tennis is an exceptional mindfuck. Noise, bad calls, and coaching turmoil are just as dangerous to a player as their opponents best shot. Any chaos off the court can easily infiltrate their mindset on it, clouding their ability to perform at a competitive level. And don’t forget the conditions of the heart. Emotional games can erode a player’s confidence just as quickly as a punishing serve. Just ask Andre Agassi, who collapsed against Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1995, after the German began blowing kisses at Agassi’s then-wife Brooke Shields.

This is the kind of tennis that most interests Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers. Early reviews of the director’s latest feature—a high-intensity tour into the bottom rungs of professional tennis—have obsessed over the toxic menage-a-trois at the center court of the film. But less has been said about the fact that Guadagnino has, unexpectedly, crafted a sports film that slyly portrays the dizzying mental dimensions of the game. He was assisted in this not just by the film’s stars Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, but with the help of tennis legend Brad Gilbert.

A living icon of the sport, Gilbert consulted on Challengers, filling out Justin Kurtzikes’ kinetic script with choreographed points, as well as teaching the film’s stars to play passable tennis. Fittingly, Gilbert is something of a sensei in the mental warfare aspect of tennis. His book “Winning Ugly,” published 32 years ago, remains an essential manual on how to gain the mental edge on your opponent. It makes Gilbert something of a perfect choice to shape the game seen in Guadagnino’s sports thriller. A former coach of Andre Agassi’s, and current coach to U.S Open winner Coco Gauff, Gilbert joined the project with some assistance from daughter Zoe Gilbert, who works for the film’s big-time producer, Amy Pascal. (Making it even more of a family affair, Gilbert’s wife Kim was already attached to the film as a tennis consultant.) Gilbert spoke with GQ Sports about the six-week tennis intensive he conducted with tennis newbies Zendaya, O’Connor, and Faist, and explained how he assembled the film’s dramatic (and heavily CGI’d) tennis sequences, which took 19 days to shoot.

Note: this interview contains spoilers for Challengers.

Tell me about working with Luca Guadagnino. Had you seen any of his films before coming onto the project?

I had not. My daughter told me he had done a couple of big movies, but no, I wasn’t really familiar. He’s a visionary. Being a director is a bit like being a coach in charge of a very big team with really talented people.

What was Luca’s relationship to tennis, if any? Did he bring any outside knowledge of the sport into the work you two did on the film? Did you get a sense he was a fan of the game?

I learned that he’s extremely detail oriented, but he was the first to say he knew nothing about tennis.

When I first read Justin [Kuritzkes]’s script, all the directions would read “exciting point,” with some directions. Ends on a tweener, ends on a miss, ends on a big winner. So I needed to write out each point, like a play by play. Something like, “This is a seven-ball rally, forehand to forehand,” and so on. And then, once you're actually filming the seven-ball rally, you’ve got to do the same seven-ball rally over every single time until you get it right.

So when we began practicing the points in Boston, Luca would come out and give us notes. He’d say, “I want this point to be shorter, I want that one to be longer. I want a little more action. I wanted more intensity.” He would think it through, then I would write it out some more, and then he would think on it a little bit more. Then, he would have his signature added to every detail. That was kind of the process of getting these points ready for filming.

So they were fully choreographed points. You were the tennis choreographer.

Every shot Justin had written in the script, but he didn't detail how the point was going to be played. He was hoping that I would add in the verbiage so everybody knows what we're going to do. The big thing was trying to balance getting the points right and then working with three people who had never really played tennis before.

You worked with the film’s stars to get them to a place of mimicking professional-level tennis. Where do you start with this process? Tell me about day one of the Brad Gilbert Hollywood Tennis Academy.

We hit a lot of balls, a couple hours every day, and then we got into the specifics of learning the points, the choreography. We had crazy long days in Boston at the Weymouth Tennis Club. Monday to Saturday, we’d start at seven in the morning. We had three courts, each on one court. We're trying to maximize what we can do during those six weeks and with shitty weather. We probably averaged four hours a day on court. Then they’d go right to the gym for a couple of hours. They wanted Josh leaner, Mike to get much stronger, and Z a little more cut. Then after that, they’d have all afternoon to do their acting lessons.

Tennis has one of the highest learning curves of any sport. The distance between what you're seeing on TV and what you can do on a court is hard to fathom. How did these three actors adjust to that learning curve?

First of all, the coolest thing of all three of 'em, they didn't really know each other that well before we started, [but] they had great chemistry, great camaraderie. They encouraged each other.

The biggest leap for them was learning to play the points that we had written out. You play with no ball and you really work on your technique and moving and playing the point in control. That helps you learn the feeling of the game a lot more quickly as opposed to if you try to play the actual points.

How did you go about designing each character’s playing style? Did you do that in collaboration with Luca and Justin, or each individual actor? Let’s start with Zendaya.

I had a couple of months out in L.A. with Zendaya before we got to Boston. We started getting her on the court, first working with a fitness person and then working on technique, copying techniques of players to watch. She worked a ton on the videos that we sent her and then all of a sudden she [was like,] Okay, this is the swing I’ve got. And then she was able to reproduce it. The script called for her character to be an aggressive killer type of tennis player, but you don't know exactly what style that is.

What were the videos you were sending her?

Kim was sending her videos of taller, thinner players like Venus [Williams] and [Maria] Sharapova to give her an idea of what her character could be. And, actually, I took her to several college matches, mostly Pepperdine and UCLA. They’re both top five in the country and really big rivals. Every match is intense. Every point there’s screaming. When we went and watched them, there were a few girls she asked about. She was really impacted by seeing the physical side of the college game, the grunting, et cetera. She was pretty surprised to see all of that shit happening at the college matches. You can't believe all the screaming on every court on the college level. It’s a little bit different than pro.

Now, I have to ask one question about Zendaya's forehand in the film. It’s perplexing. If you haven’t watched a lot of tennis, you might not notice it. But if you have, it’s distracting and won’t sit right with you. Can we talk about that? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the Zendaya forehand.

She really worked a ton on her forehand swing and her backhand swing, but a lot of that was learning with an air swing, without the ball. Then, with the power of CGI, it looks like, for her, the swing is sped up a little bit more. But given this short period of time, and considering she had never really played before, I thought she did an amazing job.

It’s far different to go out there and hit and try to learn tennis, as opposed to learning the muscle memory of a point—say, the fifteen-ball rally where [HONK HONK SPOILER ALERT] her character breaks her knee, or the scenes where she’s playing in Juniors and smacks her signature shot. That required the power of CGI.

I’ll say this: I helped them with the techniques, and I helped them write the points, but things are what they are sometimes.

How did you go about developing Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist’s tennis styles?

Mike, I got set up right away with back in January of 2022. I know a guy in Columbus that had a club and Mike would hit with him. He was the only actor to have played tennis, back in high school. His character was very well-defined. We kind of knew his game was crafted around a Sampras or a Federer, a classic style with a one-handed backhand. But Mike grew up with a two-handed backhand.

I was in communication with Mike a lot in Columbus, and not only was he having to grind on his game, they wanted him to gain a shitload of weight. He was coming from West Side Story, where he was razor thin for that role. I remember in Boston, we'd have to leave in the morning at 6 a.m. to get out to the suburbs where we were practicing. So at 5 a.m., Mike is eating, like, an eight-egg omelet. Then he had to eat during practice, and then two hours after. He had to go from 165 to 135 for West Side. It's insane. And then he had to go back up. Actors have it a little more difficult than tennis players

Josh was very athletic already, but he’d never played tennis before. He was the last to come to the set, and he came straight from Italy to Boston.

Josh’s character, Patrick Zweig, has a very distinctive serving style in the film. Was that your doing?

It was actually in the script. Justin had written that the Zweig character had a pronounced hitch on the serve. So we had to create that for him.

Some fastidious tennis observers have compared this hitch-y serve to Jay Berger's serve style, who was a former top ten ATP player during the 1990s. Was Berger a reference point?

No. Well, I remember Jay’s pronounced hitch. He had the same waggle. So, that was kind of in my mind a little bit, something from way back.

I want to ask you about the Challenger level of professional tennis. So many fans of tennis who aren't familiar with the tournaments that aren’t Slams or Masters level events. How would you describe this level of tennis, one that’s lacking the big dollar corporate partnerships or world-class facilities? And do you have any experience from your time as a pro or as a coach with Challengers?

I didn't play them much myself as a profession. In 1997, when I was coaching Andre [Agassi], he was struggling, so he dropped down and played a Vegas-based challenger. It helped him get his game back. That moment in his career might possibly be a little bit what this film is about, Andre making the drop.

When Andre was playing that challenger in 1997, how did he handle that moment?

The great thing about tennis is when you walk in and you play, nothing is given, nothing is taken for granted. The first tournament in Vegas was like the first time ever played a tournament in his hometown. He actually toughed it out to the final and then he lost to this obscure German guy, Christian Vinck, who played amazing against him in that final. I don’t know if Vinck ever got out of the challengers.

Andre took it like a champ. He was struggling mentally, physically. We needed to get his game back. We went to Burbank the next week for another challenger, and he won it, which got him ready to play the Australian Open in 1998 [where Agassi lost in the fourth round].

We don’t see a lot of tennis films get produced compared to other sports films. Do you think that’s due to the difficulty level in making tennis look right?

It's pretty difficult when you have actors who have to suddenly play like pros. Tennis is harder to choreograph than, say, boxing or football. Shooting tennis scenes is not easy. Take, for example, the Williams sisters movie, King Richard. It had just one match scene at the end, but it was just mostly them practicing. I thought they did a great job with it. After going through it, you want to make scenes look authentic, sure, but it's not easy at all, I learned.

To that point, can we talk about that final scene in Challengers? There are some spoilers here. There’s a reality-defying sequence that starts at the match’s tiebreak. It goes from a thirty-shot rally to a ten-plus shot volley duel at the end that culminates in an overhead jumping slam. It’s fun, but also something that has certainly never happened in a tennis match ever.

The script said something like, “Absolutely titanic rally into overhead match-ending slam.” I asked Justin what a “titanic rally” is and he said, “I don’t know, thirty shots?” So, I say, “Okay, I got to build a point for thirty shots. There aren’t a lot of thirty-shot rallies out there, so I started pulling up Youtube clips of Rafa [Nadal] and [Novak] Djokovic from five years before. And Justin tells me he wants a lot of volleys in it.

So, I made a shot sheet for Luca and Justin. When you write the point, you realize there's 150 people on set. Not everybody is like a savant tennis guy like me. The shot sheet helps everybody on the team understand, “Okay, this is the five-ball rally.” So it helps everybody on the team know exactly what’s happening—and more importantly, when you've got to film that point thirty or fifty times, you're able to do it over the same way. You can't all of a sudden film it one way, and then the next time film it differently.

What’s your interpretation of that final moment where Art and Patrick collide over the net?

What’s most important is, it’s Luca’s vision. It’s between him and Justin. I just set up the point. I didn’t say, Okay, that’s not real. No, the ending there is his vision. He’s the director. He’s the coach. I set up. The players knew how to perfect the point.

Now, obviously, that’s not a normal way for a point to end. Another thing that was interesting was that this scene is only the first point of the tiebreak. So there isn’t a winner or a loser after that point, but they’ve come together, Patrick and Art. And, maybe, they make peace.

Originally Appeared on GQ