Zendaya Praises ‘Iconic’ Venus and Serena Williams: My ‘Understanding of Tennis Was Them’ (Exclusive)

Of the Williams sisters, ‘Challengers’ star Zendaya says, “I admire both of them so much”

<p>Gareth Cattermole/Getty; Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Champagne Collet & OBC Wines</p> (Left-right:) Zendaya on April 10; Venus and Serena Williams in 2022

Gareth Cattermole/Getty; Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Champagne Collet & OBC Wines

(Left-right:) Zendaya on April 10; Venus and Serena Williams in 2022

For Zendaya, two “iconic” women served as the biggest influences on her tennis movie Challengers: Venus and Serena Williams.

“My only understanding of tennis as a kid growing up was them,” the actress-producer, 27, tells PEOPLE of the superstar sisters.

“When I thought of tennis as a kid, they would be that for me,” she adds. “They are my entry point to understanding anything tennis.”

Related: Serena Williams Knows She’s Been on ‘Worst Dressed Lists’ and Thinks It’s ‘Important’ — Here’s Why (Exclusive)

That came in handy on Challengers (in theaters now), from director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes. In the sports drama, Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a teenaged tennis prodigy who becomes enmeshed in a complicated romantic three-way triangle that lasts years. Josh O’Connor plays her one-time boyfriend Patrick, while Mike Faist plays her eventual husband Art. 

In addition to training in tennis for months, Zendaya says she and her costars “did a lot more research” on Venus, 43, and Serena, 42.

“They are iconic, and I admire both of them so much, not just for what they've accomplished in the sport, but I think beyond: their impact and their significance for so many people, specifically Black women," she says.

Elsa/Getty (Left-right:) Serena Williams and Venus Williams in 2022
Elsa/Getty (Left-right:) Serena Williams and Venus Williams in 2022

The Williams sisters broke ground in the predominantly White and male sport throughout the 1990s and 2000s, becoming household names as they won Grand Slam titles and Olympic gold medals. As Zendaya points out, “It's hard not to be just inspired by them in general… just in life.”

Related: Venus Williams Announces New Health and Wellness Book: ‘Goal is to Share the Tips and Tricks that Helped Me’ (Exclusive)

That goes for Venus and Serena’s legacies as fashionistas too, of course. Amid a succession of tennis-themed fashion during the Challengers press tour, Zendaya and longtime stylist Law Roach debuted a recreation of the sisters’ iconic Vogue photoshoot from 1998. 

In photos shared on Instagram by Roach on Thursday, April 18, the Dune star perches on a couch in a massive black and white striped gown and a beaded wig, echoing the Williams’ 1998 portrait in matching black-and-white Carolina Herrera gowns and beaded hair.

To embody Tashi, her fictional Challengers character, Zendaya says that she studied Venus and Serena’s skills on the tennis court. But, she says, “I don't want to compare myself in any way in this performance because I am nowhere near the greatness that they possess.”

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<p>Courtesy of MGM</p> Zendaya in "Challengers"

Courtesy of MGM

Zendaya in "Challengers"

Related: Zendaya's Challengers Costars Make Out with Her Wig on a Tennis Racket in Behind-the-Scenes Videos

On Friday, April 19, Zendaya revealed to ET that Serena has seen her performance as Tashi Duncan — and that she's a fan. "She was like, 'I know there definitely weren't real [tennis] balls," the actress told the outlet. "She knows… She did say that it was great considering that I had never, never touched a tennis ball before.”

Among the stars who attended the April 16 Los Angeles premiere of the movie were Tina Knowles, Cynthia Erivo, and Venus herself — but, recalls Zendaya, they didn’t meet in person despite a fun back-and-forth with the tennis legend on social media.

“I didn't get to see her,” she tells PEOPLE. But knowing that Venus was in the audience and “was going to watch us play tennis? That freaked me out. I was like, ‘Oh, I'm so embarrassed!’ "

Challengers is in theaters now.

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