© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Jiri Lehecka secures his Grand Slam main draw debut after qualifying at the Australian Open.

Five Challenger Stars To Watch At The Australian Open

A look at the ATP Challenger Tour stalwarts poised to make a run in Melbourne

For the next fortnight, all eyes will be on the stars of the ATP Tour as they battle for glory at the Australian Open. But as hungry as they will be to lift the trophy, there is a group of competitors that are just as motivated to make a splash at the hard-court Grand Slam. They are the players competing throughout the year on the ATP Challenger Tour.

Securing entry into a Grand Slam is no simple task. It requires year-round focus, hard work and consistency to arrive at this moment. For players grinding on the Challenger circuit, this is the reward. Having the opportunity to test their talents against the best players in the world, and with coveted points and prize money at stake, is what drives these players from January to November.

The 2022 Australian Open is no exception. A platform to showcase their skills and eventually take the next step on the ATP Tour, it presents a huge opportunity on a global stage. A strong performance can prove to be career-altering for many Challenger stars, as they target the Top 100 and beyond. So, which players are poised to wreak havoc on the draw? We look at five to watch in Melbourne...

Maxime Cressy (USA)
This is an 'ode to Max' as he appears poised to depart for full-time Tour-level duty in 2022. Up to a career-high No. 75 in the ATP Rankings, the American made his Top 100 debut with a first ATP Tour final appearance in Melbourne a week ago. It was the culmination of a dominant four-month run that saw him seize the spotlight on the global stage.

Boasting a throwback serve-and-volley game style, predicated on a booming delivery and exceptional skills at the net, Cressy has made giant strides as he worked hard to develop his game on the ATP Challenger Tour in recent years. A former college player at UCLA, the French-born American would exhibit glimpses of his potential when he qualified for the US Open in August. There, he stunned World No. 12 Pablo Carreno Busta in the first round and proceeded to earn yet another Top 50 win the following month at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells (d. Djere).

It was only a matter of time before Cressy surged to the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings. He concluded his 2021 campaign with 20 late-season wins on the ATP Challenger Tour, including three final appearances and a title in Forli, Italy. Now, following an impressive run to the final at the ATP 250 in Melbourne, Cressy will look to replicate that success at the first Grand Slam of the year. There will be no shortage of aces when he faces countryman and 22nd-seed John Isner at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

Mike Frey/AFP/Getty Images

Jiri Lehecka (CZE)
Get ready to see this #NextGenATP Czech's name in Tour-level draws throughout the 2022 season. Lehecka is here to stay.

After a breakthrough 2021 campaign on the ATP Challenger Tour, which saw him reach four finals and lift trophies on the clay of Tampere, Finland and Bucharest, Romania, the World No. 143 is poised to take his ascent to the next level in 2022. Armed with a potent attack-minded game, Lehecka is one of the brightest young prospects from the Czech Republic and an integral member of the new wave of #NextGenATP stars from the European nation. Alongside fellow qualifier Tomas Machac, they are ready to take Melbourne by storm at the first Grand Slam of the year.

Lehecka will be thrown into the fire immediately, as he makes his major debut against 26th-seed Grigor Dimitrov on Tuesday. It will be one of the under-the-radar matches to watch on Day 2, after the 20-year-old stormed through qualifying with the loss of just one set. As Lehecka launches his bid to qualify for the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals in November, the road to Milan begins in Melbourne.

Tampere Open

Stefan Kozlov (USA)
Two Americans make this list, with Kozlov joining Cressy as players to watch Down Under. Like his countryman, Kozlov mounted a serious late-season charge on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2021.

After many years fighting for belief and purpose on the court, the 23-year-old is steadily carving his own path up the ATP Rankings once again. Kozlov, who achieved a career-high No. 115 in 2017, is back inside the Top 200 for the first time in three years. He closed out his 2021 Challenger season on a stunning 20-2 run, winning titles in Columbus, Charlottesville and Champaign and securing a main draw wild card into the Australian Open.

For most players competing at the ATP Challenger level, the road to the top is not a straight line. It can require years of dedication and perseverance through the lowest of lows. A former junior No. 3 with a world of expectations heaped on his shoulders as a 16-year-old, Kozlov's journey to the Australian Open is a testament to his steadfast determination. From outside the Top 500 in late 2019 to making his main draw debut at Melbourne Park, Kozlov has earned his moment in the spotlight. He opens against Jiri Vesely on Monday, second on Court 16. A potential second-round clash with seventh-seed Matteo Berrettini looms large.

Martin Keep/Getty Images

Thanasi Kokkinakis (AUS)
ATP Challenger stars from 2021 have certainly made their mark to launch the Aussie summer of tennis. Cressy kicked it all off in Melbourne and Kokkinakis took it one step further in his hometown of Adelaide. Surrounded by friends and family, the 25-year-old lifted his maiden ATP Tour trophy at the Adelaide International 2 on Sunday.

Kokkinakis' victory signaled the culmination of years of hard work and determination as he battled back from multiple injuries and physical ailments. It has been a long and arduous road for the Aussie, but he is finally reaping the rewards. Having ascended to a career-high No. 69 in the ATP Rankings in 2015, the Adelaide native is projected to rise to No. 103 with his hometown triumph.

A candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in the 2021 ATP Awards, Kokkinakis posted a 27-11 record in Challengers a year ago in his return from a torn pectoral muscle. That included his first title since 2018 on the clay of Biella, Italy and a season-ending run to the final in Sibiu, Romania. Three months later, he is as hungry as ever to make a serious charge up the ATP Rankings and prove he belongs among the game's elite. He opens his 2022 Australian Open campaign against German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann on Monday on Court 3.

Brendon Edwards/AFP/Getty Images

Alejandro Tabilo (CHI)
With Cristian Garin firmly cemented inside the Top 100 and Tabilo and Tomas Barrios Vera surging up the ATP Rankings, it looks to be a breakout season for Chileans on the professional circuit.

Tabilo, who was born in Canada and represents Chile, is finding his stride at the age of 24. The left-hander, who opened his 2022 campaign with an appearance at the ATP Cup in Sydney, is carrying the momentum from a strong finish to 2021 on the ATP Challenger Tour. Tabilo was a dominant force in the month of November, not only lifting his first trophy on the clay of Guayaquil, but also reaching the final at the award-winning Puerto Vallarta Open.

Having also claimed his first ATP Masters 1000 match win in Indian Wells in October, Tabilo has already shown his ability to step up at the Tour-level. He'll find himself tested early and often under the bright lights of Melbourne Park, when he makes his second main draw appearance at the Australian Open this week. In 2020, the Chilean earned his first Grand Slam match win as a qualifier Down Under. Now, he faces 31st-seed Carlos Alcaraz to kick off his 2022 Australian Open quest. They will battle in primetime on Court 7 on Monday evening.

Mark Evans/Getty Images

Others to watch...
Keep an eye on #NextGenATP stars Timofey Skatov and Chun-hsin Tseng in Melbourne. Both are making their Australian Open debuts, with Skatov not dropping a set through qualifying and Tseng, a wild card, coming off his maiden Challenger title in Maia, Portugal.

Tomas Martin Etcheverry, who won 49 matches at the Challenger level a year ago, battled through qualifying to secure his Grand Slam main draw debut. He will face 19th-seed Pablo Carreno Busta on Monday. Another Tomas - Tomas Machac - is undefeated in 2022 after claiming his third ATP Challenger title in Traralgon to kick off the season and earning his Australian Open berth via qualifying.

Aussie wild card Aleksandar Vukic is hoping to carry his strong form to Melbourne after reaching a pair of late-season Challenger finals in Charlottesville and Champaign in 2021. He also opened the new year with a quarter-final appearance at the ATP 250 event in Adelaide.

More stories like this in: