THERE’S little in sport more intense than a good tennis match. Two players, at the top of their game, take to the ‘stage’ for a battle of force, style and endurance. Where most sports cap their games, tennis demands its opponents play to the bitter end, to the last man or woman standing.

All that given, the failure of cinema to deliver a raft of truly great tennis films is surprising. There have been fine and fair efforts, of course, albeit almost entirely biographical retellings. Where Borg-McEnroe and Battle of the Sexes explored famous rivalries, in a sport renowned for them, the more recent King Richard honed in on the powerhouse father behind the Williams sisters.

What’s lacking is a tour-de-force original, one as interested in the drama of play as the off-court antics of its players. A film as transfixing as the game itself. Richard Loncraine’s 2004 romcom Wimbledon, starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany, has its guilty pleasures but doesn’t nearly cut that mustard.

This week, all that will change. From Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, Challengers is, without question or condition, a truly great tennis film.

Indeed, the film’s very opening scene proffers as intense a match as cinema has ever seen. Mike Faist (West Side Story) and Josh O’Connor (The Crown) play Art and Patrick, tennis stars at the peak of their powers. Through volleys, drops and backhands, an intensity unveils itself. It’s clear there’s more here than casual rivalry.

From the stands watches Zendaya, who rounds off the leading trio as Tashi, herself a fierce tennis talent. More so than Art and Patrick, Tashi is driven by her love for the game. It’s a yearning, visceral passion. When injury takes her career from her, right at the precipice of un-touchability, she must contend with what is left.

Off court, Challengers drives its leads together into the most compelling of relationships. Across sprawling timelines, jumping back and forth, Art, Patrick and Tashi’s lives interweave. It’s sweaty, erotic, passionate and immensely powerful.

Guadagnino was no tennis aficionado before making Challengers. He barely knew the sport. What he achieves here is an understanding of its cinematic power few before him have grasped. The romantic thrill of it all is a draw but it’s the tennis itself you’ll be glued to. Quite right.