Rolex, Cartier, and the Competitive Edge: the Watches of Challengers

Before I hop into the watches in “Challengers” and how they play into the movie, I want to establish an important fact about me — I am not a sports fan, much less a tennis fan. However, this movie wasn’t really about tennis, was it?  This is more a movie about the loss of innocence to the nature of competition. Now that is something I can understand, and I’d wager you can too. Many of us are pushed to be competitive from a young age. Whether it be through sports, academics, the competition over jobs, success in the arts, or even in love, the spirit of competition is implanted early, and if you’re not careful it can take over. And yes, when it comes to the consumption of competition, watches can play a role. 

We all start out wide-eyed and accepting of others, the concept of “prejudice” or an “enemy” is not innate but instilled through slow infiltration. At the start, the characters in Challengers are exactly this — hopeful and innocent. Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) are former boarding school friends and roommates turned tennis teammates. They are close friends whose relationship extends both on and off court. Patrick is established as the naturally better tennis player at the beginning of their careers, but his love and respect for his friend Art is evident. In an early scene the two win a doubles match, but are then discussing a singles match they have the next day against one another where Art asks if Patrick would take it easy on him since his grandma will be watching.  Without hesitation, but not without a bit of ball-busting, Patrick suggests that he’ll just let Art win. 

Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) wears the same gold-tone watch throughout Challengers

Promises soon to change when both boys meet Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a tennis prodigy that they both are instantly attracted to. Tashi already is more self-aware of her competitive nature than Art and Patrick. Both watch as Tashi handily defeats an opponent early on. They both seem to admire her passion for tennis, and her “take no prisoners” way of attacking the game. At an Adidas brand ambassador party for Tashi, Patrick and Art fall over themselves to speak with her. And when Tashi expresses interest in both, the only thing left to sell her on is their passion for tennis. The winner of their singles match would get Tashi’s phone number. Innocence begins to fall apart, and competition slowly grows out of control. Tashi’s ability to control the ambitions and competitive nature of both men carries on throughout the movie.

Challengers spans a sizable portion of the lives of the three characters, from the age of 18 through to their mid-30s. When they were younger, Tashi and Art are seen wearing true active sport watches when they’re off the court. Art wears what appears to be a Timex Iron Man, and Tashi has what looks like a white rectangular G-Shock. Practical, durable, and affordable items for young athletes to have. Art at this age is untainted by the allure of branding, but looks the part of a tennis pro. Tashi, on the other hand, doesn’t just look the part of a tennis pro, she is right on the cusp of becoming one should she choose. Already supported by Adidas from the age of 18, decked out in their trimmings while on the court, yet off the court is seen in dresses and wanting some semblance of a normal life. She even goes so far as to postpone turning pro to attend college at Stanford, where she and Art will be classmates. However, Tashi’s competitive edge is there from the very beginning, in ways that it is not for the two male leads. 

Art (Mike Faist) wearing what might be a Timex Ironman in an early scene from Challengers

Patrick is a bit of an oddball character. It’s commented about a few times in the film that he comes from a more than substantial upbringing but seems to reject following it in appearance and with his own aspirations. Later in life he is essentially living out of his car as his ability wanes. He plays tennis because he doesn’t want a “real job,” yet seems to be more than content with his natural abilities as a player and not building upon them. Patrick is the most naturally gifted athlete of the three but is not willing to put in the work beyond that. Art and Tashi both make remarks throughout the movie about wishing they had certain aspects of Patrick’s ability. Patrick is only seen wearing one watch throughout the entirety of the movie. While I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is, it appears to be a vintage gold or gold tone dress watch. Likely a gift, or hand-me-down, from someone in his family. 

Tashi and Art, on the other hand, have succumbed to the trappings of success later in the timeline. Tashi, some years after an injury, becomes Art’s coach, coaching him to the top of the sport. They are married and have a child together, Lily. But branding in their lives has taken over. Tashi wears a Panthère de Cartier and a Cartier Trinity necklace, while Art is seen in a Rolex Daytona. And it doesn’t stop there — Tashi, at one point, is seen approving an Aston Martin advertisement featuring both her and her husband. The original ad sees Art in the foreground, Tashi in the background as his coach, and an Aston Martin in the middle with a heading saying, “Game Changer,” referring very clearly to Art. But, Tashi has written in an “S” to pluralize “changer” to “changers.” 

Patrick is unchanged through the timeline. Sure, he wears the same watch, but he also has a few pieces of the same clothes, including his Nike Killshots. I’m assuming he bought a new pair here and there, but they are the same color (a white shoe with a blue swoosh) from his late teens through to his thirties. His attitude toward tennis, and life, is also still the same. He refuses to settle down, refuses to truly put forth effort into his game, and has found it harder to coast on his natural abilities as he’s aged. The same cannot be said for Tashi and Art. 

Rather than allowing her injury to sideline her, she secretly seeks to draw the competitive edge back out of Art, who has become comfortable and wants to enjoy success and spend time with his daughter. To boost Art’s confidence (or shame him), she enters the famous tennis pro into a “challenger” tournament sponsored by a tire company, an early qualifier ahead of the US Open. The type of tournament that has become “home” for Patrick. This is the first time the three characters have all been in the same place in years, and the competitive edge comes full circle to an explosive third act. 

When we are not careful competition can corrupt our better judgements. Luxury items often go together with competition as a toxin. It’s not hard to want something that’s seen as “better” than what your neighbor or peer has as an artificial boost to your own status. Yet you can easily live in such a way where your actions are not indicative of the refinement of the material objects you possess. Some of us may buy watches because we love them, whether it be for the aesthetic, the technical specs, or the overall artistry. Yet others might go out and buy something to be noticed, or just to appear better than the person next to them. That competitive bug is in all of us, but it’s up to us as individuals to squash it before it grows and becomes bloodthirsty. 

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Chris Antzoulis is a published poet and comic book writer who over-romanticizes watches. Ever since his mom walked him through a department store at the budding age of six and he spotted that black quartz watch with a hologram of Darth Vader’s face on the crystal, he knew he was lost to the dark side of horology. He is currently eye-balling the next watch contenders now caught in his tractor beam.