‘7 Days in Hell’ is the perfect post-‘Challengers’ watch


A tennis player in a white shirt hits a ball.

Picture this: Two tennis players lock eyes across the court. One is an elite athlete feeling the pressure to win a title on his home turf. The other is a down-on-his luck “bad boy” who hasn’t cracked the top 100 in the rankings. Both are flagging at the tail end of a grueling match, but animosity still hangs thick in the air between them. This game isn’t just crucial to their careers: It’s a chance to settle a score.

No, I’m not describing the tense showdown between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) in Challengers. I’m talking about the central match of HBO’s tennis mockumentary, 7 Days in Hell.

Andy Samberg and Kit Harington lead this 40-minute-long special about two rival tennis players locked in a brutal week-long match. While it originally came out in 2015, it’s relevant once again as the perfect companion piece to Luca Guadagnino’s latest film. Think of it as Challengers much sillier cousin.

What is 7 Days in Hell about?

Two tennis players — one in a mullet and denim jacket, the other in an all-white uniform — at a press conference.

Andy Samberg and Kit Harington in “7 Days in Hell.”
Credit: John P Fleenor / HBO / Kobal / Shutterstock

7 Days in Hell centers on a pair of tennis stars who couldn’t be more different from one another. Aaron Williams (Samberg) is the adopted brother of Venus and Serena Williams (the latter appears as herself in several talking heads). He’s tennis’s American bad boy, happy to showboat around the court and shred on his racket like it’s a guitar. But after killing a man with his powerful serve in the Wimbledon final — this is the level of absurdity we’re working with here — his career takes a sharp nosedive. Think lawsuit-worthy underwear lines, PCP, and stints in prison.

On the other side of the net is Charles Poole (Harington), a prodigy who became the youngest player to ever turn pro. His overbearing mother (Mary Steenburgen) claims she’ll only love him if he becomes top-ranked in the world, and he’s currently England’s greatest hope at a British man winning Wimbledon. Needless to say, the pressure is on for the upcoming tournament.

A surprising set of circumstances pits Charles and Aaron against each other in the first round of Wimbledon, but what everyone thought would be a blowout victory for Charles suddenly becomes something much more intense. Rain delays, nonstop rallies, and progressively stupider interruptions drag the match out for seven days, the two men locked in eternal battle.

If Challengers is about tennis being sexy and emotionally charged, then 7 Days in Hell is about tennis being stupid and emotionally charged. Tennis rackets become murder weapons, lines on the court become places to hide lines of cocaine, Queen Elizabeth II (June Squibb) shows up to flip players off. The humor tends towards the ridiculous and juvenile — there are so many penises, both real and CGI — making for a great contrast to tennis etiquette.

7 Days in Hell sends up the documentary genre as well, including an inspired segment where the film’s talking heads, including Fred Armisen, Will Forte, and John McEnroe himself, get really passionate about Swedish courtroom drawings. But like in Challengers, it’s that final face-off on the court that really gets the blood pumping.

How is 7 Days in Hell similar to Challengers?

Two tennis players — one in an all-white uniform, one in a neon tank top and shorts — playing tennis.

Kit Harington and Andy Samberg in “7 Days in Hell.”
Credit: Mashable composite: John P Fleenor / HBO / Kobal / Shutterstock

Challengers and 7 Days in Hell have a surprising amount in common. Their pivotal games are a chance to unleash all the pent-up hostility between the two players, from one sleeping with the other’s partner to one disrespecting the other’s skill. A current of homoeroticism runs through both as well, but while Challengers takes a cheekier approach with sexy churros, 7 Days in Hell goes balls to the wall with all-male prison orgies. (It makes sense in context. Kind of.)

Even Challengers‘ much-discussed three-way kiss between Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Art, and Patrick has similarities to 7 Days in Hell. When faced with two streakers, Aaron playfully makes the pair kiss, calling to mind Tashi’s memorable power play. A confused Charles looks on, erection protruding — not unlike Art, post-makeout scene!

But where Challengers‘ threesome remains metaphorical, 7 Days in Hell goes right for the literal. Tennis is sex, the former says, while the latter points out, “sex is also sex.” Challengers may be a more sensual movie, but boy oh boy, is 7 Days in Hell more explicit.

So if you’re still buzzing from seeing Challengers and craving more outrageous tennis stories, 7 Days in Hell is the ideal bite-sized treat. Watch it, love it, then cook up some Aaron Williams/Charles Poole/Art Donaldson/Patrick Zweig/Tashi Duncan fanfic. It’s the crossover we need and deserve.

7 Days in Hell is now streaming on Max.

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