How Zendaya Got in Tennis-Pro Shape For “Challengers”

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Zendaya has taken on physically demanding roles before, from her Spider-Man performances to her two Dune films. But in her newest movie, “Challengers,” out April 26, Zendaya takes on a new challenge: tennis pro.

In the film, Zendaya plays Tashi, a tennis ace who enters her husband Art (played by Mike Faist) in a tournament called the Challenger, after her own career is cut short by a knee injury. The movie centers around themes of ambition, power, jealousy, and sex — and many key scenes take place on the tennis court, which meant that in order to bring Tashi to life, Zendaya completed intensive tennis training.

Three months out from filming, the actor started training with tennis pro Brad Gilbert. Gilbert’s name will ring a bell if you’re a tennis fan, as he was once ranked the top fourth player in the world, before he transitioned into coaching, working with the likes of Andre Agassi, Andy Murray, and Coco Gauff.

It’s safe to say that Zendaya’s prep for “Challengers” was a little more specialized than what you might expect for an actor getting in shape for a role. Here, Gilbert shares with PS how he helped Zendaya take on the part of a true tennis pro.

How Zendaya Trained For “Challengers”

Part of Zendaya’s prep entailed studying the game of tennis by watching tapes of players with similar builds to hers. From the tapes, Zendaya would pick up on specific quirks that she did or didn’t want to incorporate into her character, says Gilbert.

The two also attended two live college matches together. “We went to an Arizona State versus Pepperdine men’s match, and the thing was going for over four hours, and I thought she would want to leave,” says Gilbert. “She was like, ‘No,’ she didn’t want to leave until the thing was over.”

When it came time to shift from observation to drills, Zendaya clocked 12-hour days: completing tennis sessions in the morning, going directly to a two-hour gym workout, then acting during the afternoon, says Gilbert. “I felt like [Zendaya and her co-stars] had a lot of grinding,” he says. “It’s like what a tennis player has to do to get ready. He’s got six weeks in the off season, you’ve got to grind to get ready for Australia.”

Intense as the training was, the actors maintained high spirits and a sense of camaraderie throughout that helped them stay motivated, Gilbert says. At one point, in an homage to their coach, they passed out pins with a photo of a mulleted Gilbert in his heyday as a player, he says.

In addition to training the actors, Gilbert also choreographed the tennis matches in the movie, adjusting as necessary based on feedback from director Luca Guadagnino. “We would choreograph it, and then Luca would, through his vision, say, ‘Nah, that point is too short, this needs to be longer, it needs to be shorter, it needs to be faster,'” says Gilbert. “So I would write it and then we would see it a little bit, watch a couple people come out and demonstrate it, then he would make changes.”

Zendaya, Faist, and Josh O’Connor (playing Art’s best friend and Zendaya’s former lover Patrick) then spent four weeks perfecting those sequences. Each actor had a personal coach, ensuring they could make the most of their tennis sessions.

The education, training, and choreography were all essential to allow Zendaya to fully transform into Tashi. “In tennis, a lot of times you watch something in real time, you don’t know how it’s going to go,” says Gilbert. “This is a little bit different, we’re getting somebody ready. And I think what helped [Zendaya and her co-stars] most was scripting the points and doing it without the ball, learning to play this point in full, and understanding what this point meant.”

The intense training that Zendaya, Faist, and O’Connor completed didn’t go to waste, as “Challengers” is a tennis-heavy film. The movie flashes back and forth between the Challenger tournament and Tashi’s, Art’s, and Patrick’s encounters years prior. Present-day Tashi and Art are surprised to run into Patrick at the Challenger and learn that he’d also signed up to compete.

“Early on I realized that the Challenger is the narrator of the movie; it tells the story of how we got to this point and how we develop each one of these characters, their strengths and their flaws,” says Gilbert. “So it’s not your standard match, but I feel like we showed more tennis than maybe any tennis movie has ever shown before.”

— Additional reporting by Samantha Sasso

Renee Cherry is a POPSUGAR contributor who specializes in beauty and wellness. Her writing has appeared in Shape, Women’s Health, Glamour, and Well + Good, among other publications.

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