Challenger Season Preview: 10 To Watch In 2018
The 2018 ATP Challenger Tour season is underway, with a trio of tournaments - in Bangkok, Noumea and Playford - kicking off the new year. Many players are looking to carry the momentum from strong 2017 campaigns, while others are eyeing a fresh start as the calendar turns.
Last year, 14 players broke into the Top 100 and will look to translate their Challenger success to the ATP World Tour. A total of 33 others tasted victory for the first time and are hoping to continue to plot their ascents up the ATP Rankings.
New opportunities await the stars of tomorrow, as the sun rises on 2018. Who will shine in the new year? We look at the players poised to break through.
Felix Auger-Aliassime [No. 161]: It has been quite the ride for the Canadian since crashing onto the scene as a 14-year-old. One history-making performance after another has Auger-Aliassime closing in on joining close friend and countryman Denis Shapovalov in the Top 100. One of the more precocious young talents in the modern era, the Montreal native boasts an electric game that saw him lift his maiden Challenger trophies in Lyon, France and Sevilla, Spain. Coming off his first full season as a professional, Auger-Aliassime has already cemented himself in the record books. Over the past 20 years, only three players younger than the 17-year-old had made their Top 200 debut: Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt and Richard Gasquet. With time to continue to grow and mature, expect the World No. 161 to be a serious threat on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2018.
Yannick Hanfmann [No. 119]: Alexander Zverev is leading the German revolution on the ATP World Tour, with eight players occupying spots in the Top 100. That number could swell into double digits this year. Hanfmann, 26, and Oscar Otte, 24, quietly charged up the ATP Rankings in 2017, steadily improving as the year progressed. Hanfmann tasted the most success, rising nearly 200 spots behind a run to his first ATP World Tour final as a qualifier in Gstaad (l. to Fognini) and maiden Challenger crown on home soil in Ismaning. Otte, meanwhile, opens the year at No. 131 after soaring 379 spots, notching his maiden title in Lisbon. Both players' ascents have been nothing short of stunning, having combined to post a 3-16 record in Challenger main draws entering 2017.
Nicolas Jarry [No. 113]: It won't be long before Chile's No. 1 graduates from the ATP Challenger Tour. Jarry became the first Top 100 player from the South American nation since 2011 after claiming the title on home soil in Santiago in November. In fact, he mounted the third-biggest climb to the year-end Top 100 of the ATP Rankings, vaulting a total of 300 spots. Two years after suffering a broken wrist and falling outside the Top 600, the 22-year-old is realizing his potential. He captured three trophies last year and qualified for his first Grand Slams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The big-hitting Jarry wrote about his experiences on the Challenger circuit and his emotional journey in the latest edition of the Challenger Chronicles.
Miomir Kecmanovic [No. 207] & Alex de Minaur [No. 208]: As the only players outside the Top 200 on this list, teens Kecmanovic and De Minaur might be considered long shots to crash the Top 100 party in 2018, but they have earned their places here regardless. Kecmanovic, an 18-year-old Serbian, became the youngest from his country to win an ATP Challenger Tour title since Novak Djokovic in 2005, prevailing in Suzhou, China. De Minaur, an 18-year-old Aussie, reached his second Challenger final in Segovia, Spain, and is coming off an impressive season-opening victory over World No. 44 Steve Johnson at the ATP World Tour stop in Brisbane. With their careers just beginning, look for Kecmanovic and De Minaur to continue to gain experience and develop their games on the circuit in 2018.
Soon-woo Kwon [No. 172]: Hyeon Chung is certainly the talk of Korean tennis after notching the Next Gen ATP Finals title, but countryman Soon-woo Kwon is not far behind. The 20-year-old became a Top 200 mainstay last year after posting a 27-17 record on the ATP Challenger Tour, reaching his first finals in Yokohama and Seoul. Kwon has already launched his 2018 campaign in strong fashion, winning the Asia-Pacific Australian Open wild card tournament. He will make his tour-level debut at Melbourne Park and continues his pursuit of his first Challenger crown this year.
Michael Mmoh [No. 175]: The American contingent of #NextGenATP stars is thriving, with Frances Tiafoe leading a strong group that also includes Mmoh, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul and Stefan Kozlov. Mmoh is on the comeback trail after struggling with an abdominal injury in 2017. Despite the ailment, he captured his second ATP Challenger Tour title in Lexington and rose to a career-high No. 141 in the ATP Rankings. Now down to No. 175, the 19-year-old is looking to stay healthy in the new year as he continues his Top 100 quest. One of the more athletic young talents on the Challenger circuit, Mmoh is a threat in any tournament he enters. His 2018 campaign is already off to an auspicious start, having claimed his first ATP World Tour match win in Brisbane after coming through qualifying.
Corentin Moutet [No. 155]: The lone French teenager in the Top 200 of the ATP Rankings, Moutet quietly emerged on the #NextGenATP scene in 2017. Despite competing on the ATP Challenger Tour for only half the year, the 18-year-old's game matured at a rapid pace. Having opened his campaign at No. 533, few could have predicted his titanic ascent to a career-high No. 154. A late-season surge saw him storm to a pair of Futures titles and stun the field in Brest, France, for his maiden ATP Challenger Tour crown. With the poise and patience of a veteran, the unseeded wild card won a trio of three-set matches en route to the title. He is the youngest Frenchman to lift a trophy since Richard Gasquet in 2005.
Cameron Norrie [No. 114]: The 22-year-old former Texas Christian University standout was one of the most dominant performers on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2017. Norrie quickly earned the respect of his fellow competitors after opening the year at No. 276 in the ATP Rankings. A maiden title in Binghamton in July set the stage for a ruthless run to the finish, posting a combined 31-8 stretch to cap the year. He would add consecutive crowns in Northern California (Tiburon, Stockton) after reaching the US Open second round as a qualifier. It won't be long before Norrie joins Andy Murray and Kyle Edmund as Brits in the Top 100 and becomes a fixture on the ATP World Tour.
Stefano Travaglia [No. 134]: When Travaglia surged onto the scene at the US Open, marching into the second round as a qualifier, his incredible story of tragedy to triumph came to the forefront. The Italian, who suffered a career-threatening accident in 2011 when he fell down a flight of stairs and crashed through a pane of glass, underwent years of rehab for nerve and tendon damage. It made his 2017 rise even more stunning. The 26-year-old finally broke through with his first ATP Challenger Tour title in Ostrava, Czech Republic and first Top 50 win (d. Fognini) at Flushing Meadows. Up to No. 134, Travaglia has already picked up where he left off, qualifying for the 2018 season-opening Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha.
Elias Ymer [No. 142]: The addition of a new coach can be the catalyst a rising player needs to take the next step. For Ymer and Robin Soderling, the duo are hoping that their great chemistry and growing partnership continues in the new year. Two years after emerging as the next generation of Swedish tennis, the 21-year-old is putting it all together with the former World No. 4. Titles on the clay of Cordenons, Italy, and indoor hard courts of Mouilleron-le-Captif, France, saw him leap more than 150 spots to year-end No. 142. With a more attacking and offensive mentality, he is hoping the change in philosophy will pay dividends in 2018.