Meet the Former Tennis Star Who Helped Bring Zendaya’s Challengers Game to Life

Kara Hall/MGM

For the casual viewer, the new Zendaya film Challengers is an electric and sexy romp about sports, competition, and of course, a love triangle. But for Kathryn “Kara” Hall, the film rang true—and bittersweet.

Hall, 28, had spent most of her childhood and young adulthood devoting her entire life to tennis, first as a junior player and then as a college athlete at the University of Michigan. Realizing she wasn’t going to go pro, Hall hung up her racket after graduation and focused on building the next chapter of her life without the sport that had thus far defined it. She got a normal corporate job in Chicago, got married, and focused on balance.

“I kind of pushed tennis away, and I was like, I'm not this tennis player anymore. It took up too much of my life when I was younger,” she tells me.

That is, until 2022, when out of the blue she was contacted by producers for the film, Challengers. They were looking for a tennis player who physically resembled Zendaya, and Hall fit the bill. It was such an unexpected occurrence that Hall at first wasn’t sure it was legit, but suddenly she was on a film set, helping the star train for her role as Tashi Duncan and appearing as her “tennis double” in the film.

Hall, of course, enjoyed the amazing experience of being on a Hollywood production—and all the glitz and glam that came with it—but the best part was rediscovering her passion for the sport.

“It helped me appreciate a new love for the game, of coming back and being proud of the skills I still have even if I’m not competing on the pro tour,” she says.

Hall met up with Glamour to chat about how she helped create Tashi’s fierce game, the person she was most excited to see at the Challengers premiere, and who of the film’s core trio she is most likely to root for.

Glamour: Tell us about your tennis career.

Kara Hall: I grew up in a big sports family. I have three younger sisters, and my dad played a lot of sports in college. So when we were growing up, he got us all into sports. As I got older I decided that I wanted to take tennis as far as I could. So I focused on tennis at a young age, went down to a tennis academy in Florida and trained through the week, and traveled across the country to play tournaments in hopes of playing at college. Then I was lucky enough to be able to pursue my college career at the University of Michigan, and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. Tennis was my whole life; it has always been a part of me, and I fully loved training and working toward a goal, whether it was a tournament or a match with the team. It was like a full-time job. I’ve always been an aggressive baseline player with a big forehand [like Tashi in the movie], which is a fun aspect.

It sounds like you could really relate to Tashi and her relationship to tennis.

Yes, absolutely. It was funny, when I was talking to them about the role and they were asking me to send pictures and videos of myself playing tennis, I sent videos of myself screaming, “Come on!” [which Tashi memorably does in the film]. When I auditioned, I played in front of the team for 30 minutes, and I was just ripping forehand and showing them how I can get competitive again and showing them that fist bump and the “Come on!” So it felt natural to embody that character again. It was really fun to talk with them about the athlete side of it, but also the art side of it in the movie and what we wanted this character to look like.

What did you do after tennis?

I finished my career at Michigan in 2018, and after that I moved on with my life. I knew I wasn’t good enough to go pro. I still loved sports, I still loved staying active, and so I found my way of still staying active and working out and enjoying my workouts outside of just my day-to-day corporate life that I’ve now pursued in Chicago.

How did you get involved with Challengers?

It was out of the blue. I later found out one of the girls helping the team—she was a side coach and hitting partner for some of the men at the time—had played college tennis at the same time I did. So we knew of each other, and they were asking her to send players that she may know who could be Zendaya’s tennis double and had played at the college level. She sent them my Instagram and my contact, and they reached out.

Wait, they just hit you up out of nowhere?

Yes, exactly. I was a bit confused, and I didn’t even know if I could believe it was real at first. I was pretty short at first when they reached out, but then they said, “Can we talk on the phone about it?” Once I heard more about it…it became more real to me.

What was it like being on a movie set as someone new to the industry?

It was pretty surreal. It was very cool for me to see the way movies are put together. I quickly learned what my role was and what the actor’s roles were and how we both had different mindsets from preparing. I was focused on staying warm and staying ready as a tennis player, almost as if I’d be ready for a match. I was noticing that the actors were defining their different ways of staying in character and staying focused. It really helped me grow appreciation for what actors go through to stay in that character of a different person from who they are day-to-day.

Can you walk us through exactly what you were doing on set? I saw some people describe your role as a stunt double, which it kind of was, but not exactly.

I guess the stunt was tennis. About six weeks in advance of shooting, we started playing tennis and working out. When I was doing that, I was also learning about what the choreographed points were going to look like for each scene. I worked with Zendaya and our coach to help her learn my footwork and strokes so we could really focus on almost becoming one. I had to learn how to try and walk like her. She also had to learn how to pick up my mannerisms and tennis and the way I swing as well as my footwork. It was really cool to see the way that she would think about it and the details that she would notice of how I play that I don’t realize because they’re just second nature. Then when we got on set, we would do several takes of points, and it’d be a combination of me playing tennis and playing that point out, Zendaya shadow-stroking me and also shooting at a shadow, then her shooting on her own. The goal was to use CGI to make us become one, to be Tashi playing.

Before all this you had a normal corporate job, which you kept during filming. How did that work?

I told my boss, and they were really excited for me. When we were preparing—I guess you would call it rehearsing, but for us tennis players, it was training—we were in Boston for six weeks. I would play tennis in the morning for two hours, and then we’d work out for an hour, me and Zendaya and our coach, Eric. Then I would go start my workday and work from the hotel; I’d just start the day later and end the day later and catch up on the weekends. For the actual shoot days, which happened about a month or so later in the summer, I was only in three main scenes for tennis. As you can see in the movie, Tashi doesn’t have that long of a tennis career. So some of them I was lucky enough to have happen on the weekends, but other ones I took a couple days off.

As a player, what did you think of the film’s portrayal of the tennis world?

It was cool to see that they highlighted the junior tennis world, and when [Tashi is] a junior at the Junior US Open and what a big deal that is. And then going on to college. It’s funny, my last college match was at Stanford, so as we were walking, I was like, “This really looks like Stanford.” It was really cool for me. It was very realistic in a lot of ways of how tennis works. You’re kind of on your own and separate from your normal high school, so the people you play tournaments with become your friends and your love interests. Your world is tennis, so your social world is tennis too. The social aspect of that was very realistic. It was cool for me to see them reenact that in a movie.

I feel like beyond sports, that’s really relatable. If you’re into a certain sport or hobby, it can become your whole life.

Right, even Patrick [Josh O’Connor] thinking about how he took the risk and went pro and didn’t go to college…I’ve seen players do that. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Or players like Tashi, who was a top player, for her to go to the best school with a full-ride scholarship and going to go pro after and make her family a ton of money. There are players who can pursue that, but it also is a big risk, in a way. I like how it shows her emotions and what she goes through when all that she dreamed of, probably since she was a little girl, did not really come true. That’s the tough part about sports too.

Did those scenes resonate with you as a former college athlete?

Yes, I think that’s why I really channeled my drive into my career in finance and consulting. I’ve still had to learn balance because there’s nothing really that will ever fill that void. But I’ve learned that it’s more finding your own balance. When you’re a young athlete, you truly don’t have a great balance; whatever sport or whatever you’re working toward is your life. As you get older, you have to figure out what that balance is. For me, it’s been a more healthy balance of finding my workouts and still creating my balance with my corporate life.

What was it like working with Zendaya? I can imagine meeting such an accomplished actor would be intimidating at first.

Definitely. It was intimidating for me going into the situation, but she was so kind. I was very shy, and she’s shy too. So we were just two shy girls getting to know each other. I always wanted to defer to her comfort and what she would want to talk about as we were getting to know each other and learning the character and what we’d need to do. But from the beginning she said this is a great match, and that gave me some confidence. It was really fun full-circle once we were finished, and I told her thank you. She told me thank you. I told her as a mixed girl, it was really cool for me to not only work with her, but I’d always looked up to her, and my sisters and I had been rooting for her. Seeing another mixed girl representing us and the entertainment industry is just really cool because that’s not something we grew up seeing and just to be proud of our heritage and who we are too.

How was the premiere? Did you get star-struck?

The coolest thing for me at the premiere, besides seeing Zendaya and the cast and reconnecting with them, was seeing Venus Williams. She was across the aisle from me, and I was too shy to go up and introduce myself. I waved, and we didn’t talk about it at all, but I was like, Venus Williams is watching my tennis—this is so cool!

I feel like we need to work your Zendaya connections to meet Venus!

Yeah, that’s true. I did see some interviews that Zendaya did, and she spoke about our work and using me as her inspiration to learn how to mimic tennis and how to play and how to swing, and that was a really cool honor to see. It speaks to her character, too, of being kind and giving me credit.

Okay, final question: Are you Team Art, Team Patrick, or Team Tashi?

Team Tashi. I empathize with her and her love for the game. Usually the female character is always the good guy, or she listens and keeps peace. I respect that she’s doing things her way.

Stephanie McNeal is a senior editor at Glamour and the author of Swipe Up for More! Inside the Unfiltered Lives of Influencers.

Originally Appeared on Glamour