Challenger Season In Review: 20 Storylines In 2020
ATPTour.com reflects on the players and tournaments that shaped the Challenger circuit this year.
The Ascendance of Alcaraz
In such an unpredictable and unprecedented year, it was a teenager that captured the imagination of so many. The ATP Challenger Tour was under assault by a 17-year-old from Spain, who made the circuit his personal playground.
Carlos Alcaraz's breakthrough was unlike any other. From sitting just inside the Top 500 of the FedEx ATP Rankings to start the year, Alcaraz plotted an astounding ascent, breaking records and etching his name in the history books along the way.
When Alcaraz splashed onto the scene at the ATP 500 event in Rio de Janeiro in February, earning his first Top 50 win in his ATP Tour debut, it was merely a harbinger of a wildly successful season to come. The Spaniard dominated following the tour's restart in August, immediately capturing his maiden Challenger title in Trieste, Italy, as a qualifier. At the age of 17 years and three months, he became the youngest Spanish champion since Rafael Nadal in 2003.
And less than two months later, Alcaraz further cemented his Challenger legacy, becoming the youngest player to ever win titles in consecutive weeks. His victories on home soil in Barcelona and Alicante not only vaulted him to the Top 150, but put him in an exclusive club as one of just five players to win three titles before their 18th birthday.
Most Titles Age 17 & Under
|Juan Martin del Potro
Alcaraz concluded his 2020 campaign with a 20-4 record on the Challenger circuit, boasting a tour-leading 83.3 win percentage. Two stats stood out above the rest for the teenager: Not only did he extend his staggering record in tie-breaks to 14-1 in his young career, but he finished a perfect 9-0 in 2020. With the pressure on, he was as clutch as they come, posting an 11-3 record in deciding-set matches since the circuit resumed on 17 August.
Cerundolo's Big Breakthrough
In the final months of the 2020 season, Francisco Cerundolo was undoubtedly the player to beat on the ATP Challenger Tour. The Argentine put the rest of the tour on notice with a ruthless clay-court game that saw him reel off 20 of 23 matches.
In October, Cerundolo introduced himself to the tennis world with a maiden Challenger title in Split, Croatia. The Argentine told us the story of how he studied for three exams while battling through the Split Open draw.
In November, competing in his first tournament as a Top 200 player, Cerundolo returned to South America and blitzed the field in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In front of former World No. 4 and tournament director Andres Gomez, he powered to his second title.
And in December, Cerundolo completed an unforgettable title treble in Campinas, defeating World No. 102 Roberto Carballes Baena for his third crown in three months. The Argentine joined Alcaraz as the most decorated players on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2020.
Cerundolo rose to a career-high No. 139 in the FedEx ATP Rankings with the victory in Campinas, soaring more than 100 spots since the start of the year. His 22 match wins were most on the Challenger circuit since the restart from the COVID-19 shutdown.
Russian Resurgence: Karatsev Dominates In 2020
In the first week of the ATP Challenger Tour restart, Stan Wawrinka and Aslan Karatsev met for the Prague crown. All eyes were on the Swiss star as he made one of the more memorable Challenger appearances in recent history. But while Wawrinka would go on to take the title in two tight sets, it was that moment that sparked something even bigger in his Russian counterpart.
Since the ATP Challenger Tour restart in mid-August, only one player owned a winning percentage of 90 per cent or higher (minimum 10 matches played). That was none other than Karatsev. The 27-year-old was one of the dominant forces on the circuit following the COVID-19 break, following that defeat to Wawrinka with back-to-back titles in Prague-2 and Ostrava. Moreover, he posted a staggering 18-2 record in that span. Five years removed from his lone previous title on the ATP Challenger Tour, Karatsev enjoyed an impressive resurgence with new coach Alberto Lopez.
After battling a knee injury for many years, Karatsev is wasting no time in his journey to crack the Top 100. In October, he also earned his first win on the ATP Tour in five years, defeating Tennys Sandgren in St. Petersburg. It marked his first victory over a Top 50 opponent. From just inside the Top 300 to open the year to a career-high No. 111 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, Karatsev took full advantage of his opportunities in 2020.
A Restart To Remember
It was a year unlike any other. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, few could predict the impact the virus would have on our lives. In the tennis world, the professional circuit came to an abrupt halt as players hung up their racquets in the middle of the season. For a sport that is a nonstop traveling roadshow week in and week out, it forced us to pump the breaks for more than five months.
For many players, this provided even more motivation to train and improve their physical and mental conditioning. As sports slowly began to return and restore some sense of normalcy during the summer months, the ATP Challenger Tour brought the fireworks from the first ball. Italy and the Czech Republic took centre stage, with Yannick Hanfmann and Wawrinka taking the first titles in Todi and Prague, respectively.
Alcaraz and Karatsev put in countless hours of work during the hiatus and it showed in the initial weeks of the restart. Both would dominate the month of August, lifting trophies and racking up wins without pause. The most consistent performers throughout the coming months, they combined to win 38 matches and lift five trophies.
Thank You To Our Tournaments
The ATP Challenger Tour features some of the hardest working and dedicated organisers and staff in professional tennis. They work tirelessly throughout the year to produce world-class events, which are often an integral part of their regions' economy and culture. Many of these tournaments were directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, either forcing their cancellation or postponement. The impact of the pandemic has been felt throughout the world and these events are no exception. We sincerely thank them for all they do.
In total, there were 32 tournaments in 14 countries during the ATP Challenger Tour restart. Operating a professional tournament amid a global pandemic is no simple task. From establishing protocols and policies to make everyone feel safe and secure, while maintaining world-class hospitality, much credit goes to the organisers for making this a possibility.
With frequent temperature checks, mask wearing enforced throughout the grounds and social distancing in effect, it has become a game of adaptation. Players have shown their appreciation for the tournaments' efforts to maintain a safe environment, while creating playing opportunities in the final four months of the season.
The February Four
Prior to the tour's shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, four players were taking the circuit by storm. The stoppage in play halted the momentum of Arthur Rinderknech, Jurij Rodionov, J.J. Wolf and Maxime Cressy.
The foursome had dominated the month of February on the ATP Challenger Tour, surging to the top of the 2020 wins leaderboard with a combined 44-9 record and five titles. Rodionov was the top performer of the month, winning 15 of 17 matches and lifting a pair of hard-court trophies in Dallas and Morelos.
Cressy was a close second, claiming 12 of 15 matches, including a title in Drummondville and final appearance the following week in Calgary. Rinderknech, who fell to the American in the Drummondville final, exacted revenge in Calgary for his second crown of the year. In January, he prevailed on the indoor hard courts of Rennes, France. And the 21-year-old Wolf was just as ruthless in the early months of 2020, posting a 14-2 mark in January and February with victories in Noumea and Columbus.
Musetti's Magical Week
Carlos Alcaraz and Lorenzo Musetti were arguably the biggest revelations of the 2020 restart. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, few were familiar with the teenage sensations, but that would change in a flash.
For Musetti, the month of September is one he will never forget. Not only did the 18-year-old burst onto the scene at the Foro Italico in Rome, making a splash on the ATP Masters 1000 stage with a run to the Round of 16, but he would follow that with a maiden Challenger title just one week later. Upsets of Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori in Rome were immediately followed by statement Top 100 wins over Frances Tiafoe, Andreas Seppi, Lloyd Harris and Thiago Monteiro in nearby Forli.
It was a whirlwind stretch for the teenager and it all culminated with Italy's newest star clutching his first trophy. Musetti became the youngest to defeat four Top 100 players at a Challenger tournament since 2000 and the lowest-ranked to do so since Alberto Martin in 2007. In fact, he entered Rome without a Top 100 win to his name, but in the span of 12 days he claimed six such victories.
In addition, at 18 years and six months, Musetti became the fifth-youngest Italian champion in Challenger history with his triumph in Forli. Only Jannik Sinner's three titles in 2019 and Stefano Pescosolido's triumph in Parioli in 1989 came at a younger age.
Challenger Stars Crash Roland Garros Party
You love to see it. When an ATP Challenger Tour star makes a run at a Grand Slam, it is the reward for months and years of hard work. 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. This was on full display at Roland Garros in September, as a bevy of Challenger stalwarts announced their arrival in grand fashion.
Sitting outside the Top 150 of the FedEx ATP Rankings at the time, Sebastian Korda, Hugo Gaston and Daniel Altmaier would all reach the Round of 16 of the clay-court Grand Slam. Altmaier earned a stunning victory over seventh seed Matteo Berrettini, while Hugo Gaston registered a thrilling five-set win over Stan Wawrinka and Korda defeated countryman John Isner before falling to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.
Sixteen years after his brother Guillermo Coria reached the Roland Garros final, Federico Coria scored his best result at a major with a third round finish. And 30 years after his father Andres Gomez triumphed on the terre battue, Emilio Gomez qualified for his first Grand Slam at the same tournament.
A Family Affair
Coria and Gomez weren't the only players to follow in their famous relatives' footsteps in 2020. In February, 37 years after his father Bjorn Borg announced his retirement, Leo Borg arrived on the scene. The 16-year-old made his ATP Challenger Tour debut in Bergamo, Italy. The local media took notice, with two of the most important Italian TV stations - Sky Sports and Mediaset - traveling to Bergamo to cover the Swede's debut.
Then, in early November, Sebastian Korda captured his maiden Challenger crown on the carpet courts of Eckental, Germany. The son of former World No. 2 Petr Korda, 'Sebi' made his long-awaited appearance in the winners' circle with his first professional title. He would reel off a combined 13 of 15 matches from the start of his memorable fourth-round run at Roland Garros, soaring to a career-high No. 116 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
And two weeks later, it was Felipe Meligeni who added his first Challenger crown in Sao Paulo, exactly 27 years after his uncle Fernando Meligeni won his maiden title in the same city. The 22-year-old Brazilian dropped one set all week at the Clube Hipico Santo Amaro, rising to a career-high No. 242. His uncle Fernando was a former World No. 25 and Roland Garros semi-finalist in 1999.
Who was the only player to win on multiple surfaces in 2020? Marc-Andrea Huesler's victories on the outdoor clay of Sibiu, Romania and indoor carpet courts of Ismaning, Germany, gave the Swiss the unique distinction.
Huesler was one of the hottest players on the planet following the COVID-19 break, not only lifting his second and third Challenger trophies, but also streaking to the semi-finals at the ATP 250 stop in Kitzbuhel. He reeled off five straight wins as a qualifier, including his first career Top 20 victory over Fabio Fognini.
Huesler was a Swiss sensation in the restart, securing a combined 17 wins from 20 matches on the Challenger circuit and ATP Tour. Considering that the Zurich native had sat out the start of the 2020 season with a foot injury, missing action for a total of nine months, his dominant run of form is even more impressive. In August, he was sitting outside the Top 300 of the FedEx ATP Rankings. He concludes the year at No. 148.
The #NextGenATP Charge
We all know about the dominance of Carlos Alcaraz during the restart, as well as the breakthroughs of Lorenzo Musetti and Sebastian Korda, and the ruthless month of February from 20-year-old Jurij Rodionov. But don't leave out Tomas Machac and Brandon Nakashima on the list of emerging #NextGenATP stars in 2020.
Machac became the first teenage winner of the year when he dominated on the indoor hard courts of Koblenz, Germany, in February. It marked the first time a Czech teen had lifted a Challenger trophy since Jiri Vesely in 2013. Having opened the year outside the Top 350, Machac would surge to the year-end Top 200, also reaching the final in Bratislava and qualifying for his first Grand Slam at Roland Garros. There, he pushed 27th seed Taylor Fritz to five sets in the first round.
Nakashima, meanwhile, became the youngest American champion since Frances Tiafoe in 2017 with his maiden title in Orlando. At the age of 19, the California native did not drop a set all week at the USTA National Campus. Up to a career-high No. 166 in the year-end FedEx ATP Rankings, Nakashima also triumphed in his Grand Slam debut at the US Open (d. Lorenzi) and reached the quarter-finals in his ATP Tour debut earlier in the year in Delray Beach.
You Always Remember Your First
The shortened season did not stop 14 players from celebrating their maiden moments in the spotlight on the ATP Challenger Tour. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, it was Machac, Rinderknech, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, Cem Ilkel, Roman Safiullin and Mohamed Safwat crashing the party. They would be followed by Alcaraz, Musetti, Nakashima, Korda, Cerundolo, Meligeni and Spaniards Carlos Taberner and Bernabe Zapata Miralles.
Alcaraz became the youngest first-time winner since a 16-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime in 2017, while 29-year-old Safwat is the oldest first-time winner since Spain's Sergio Gutierrez-Ferrol in 2018.
Safwat Puts Egypt On The Map
Speaking of Safwat, the 29-year-old's maiden moment was a significant one, not only for himself but for his native Egypt as well. Safwat became just the second Egyptian to win a Challenger title and first since 1996, when Tamer El Sawy went back-to-back in The Bronx, New York. The long 24-year drought came to a close as Safwat fired a service winner out wide to clinch the title in Launceston, Australia.
"I can’t really describe how I feel," Safwat said. "It’s something I’ve been chasing for a long time. I’ve been working hard towards it. Multiple times in the past I got very close to it but I couldn’t take it. This time, I never expected to win it in Launceston, never ever."
Safwat has been flying the flag for Egypt for the past decade, as the only player from his country in the Top 200 of the FedEx ATP Rankings. Fellow North African nations of Tunisia and Morocco have both featured Challenger champions in that span. For a nation without a rich tennis history, a moment like this can provide a significant boon and inspire a new generation of Egyptian players.
The American Onslaught
The only nation with double-digit champions was the United States. A total of nine different Americans won titles in 2020, led by J.J. Wolf's pair of early-season victories in Noumea and Columbus and Steve Johnson's crowns in Bendigo and Indian Wells.
Ulises Blanch prevailed in Ann Arbor to open the year, with Thai-Son Kwiatkowski taking his maiden title in Newport Beach and Maxime Cressy emerging victorious in Drummondville, Canada. When the Challenger circuit resumed in mid-August, it was Frances Tiafoe returning to the winners' circle on the clay of Parma, Denis Kudla and Brandon Nakashima going back-to-back on home soil in Cary and Orlando, and Sebastian Korda adding his first title in Eckental.
Spain finished second with seven winners, followed by Germany with five champions.
Challenger At Home
During the pro circuit's COVID-19 shutdown, today's ATP Challenger Tour stars peeled back the curtain, discussing how they have been impacted by the pandemic and providing an exclusive glimpse into life at home.
When it was announced that the ATP Challenger Tour would make its long-awaited return on 15 August in Prague, former World No. 3 Stan Wawrinka immediately tossed his name into the field. The return of the Swiss star to the Challenger circuit became one of the biggest headlines of the year.
In search of match rhythm and clay-court preparation after the professional circuit's five-month hiatus, Wawrinka opted to stay in Europe ahead of Rome and Roland Garros. The decision would pay dividends, as he battled to the title in the Czech capital. It did not come easy for the Lausanne native, who rallied from a set down on three occasions during the week.
One of two Top 40 players to enter a Challenger tournament in 2020 (also Fritz in Newport Beach), World No. 17 Wawrinka became the highest-ranked champion since No. 14 Ivan Ljubicic in Zagreb 2005.
Feel-Good Story Of The Year: Attila Balazs
In 2010, Attila Balazs won his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Palermo, Italy, but in 2014, the Hungarian would retire from pro tennis to begin a coaching career following a rash of injuries.
Now, six years later, Balazs is back with a vengeance. At the age of 31, he would provide the feel-good story of the year, when he lifted the trophy at the Bangkok Challenger in January. Despite a decade passing between titles, it's like Balazs never left the tour. He would rise to a career-high No. 76 in the FedEx ATP Rankings in March, having also reached the semi-finals at the ATP 500 event in Rio de Janeiro.
It all culminated in September, when the Budapest native earned his first win in a Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
Behar, Escobar Dominate Doubles Circuit
In 2018, it was Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies. In 2019, it was Luke Saville and Max Purcell. And now, in the most unprecedented of seasons, one thing remained predictable: Ariel Behar and Gonzalo Escobar dominating the doubles circuit on the ATP Challenger Tour.
The Uruguayan-Ecuadorian duo won titles in Newport Beach and Istanbul, posting a 34-4 record in their last 10 Challenger appearances together. They also reached the final on the clay of both Aix-en-Provence and Parma. Additionally, Behar added three more titles alongside Andrey Golubev in Italy, going back-to-back-to-back to open the restart in Todi, Trieste and Cordenons.
Behar and Escobar will look to ride the momentum on the ATP Tour in 2021. The 31-year-old Behar is up to No. 67 in the FedEx ATP Doubles Rankings, while the 31-year-old Escobar is up a career-high No. 69.
Three Unforgettable Matches
If there was ever a turning point for a young player in search of confidence and belief, look no further than this. Competing in just the ninth Challenger event of his young career and facing his biggest foe yet, top seed Frances Tiafoe, it proved to be a seminal moment for Brandon Nakashima on a Thursday night in Dallas. With NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki in the house, Nakashima and Tiafoe put on a show under the lights at T Bar M Racquet Club.
An air of tension filled Stadium court, as the Americans traded blows for two hours and 18 minutes. Neither was willing to concede an inch, as Tiafoe battled from a set and a break down to prevail 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-5. It was counterpunch after counterpunch, with a bevy of baseline bombs exchanged throughout the encounter and Nakashima's steely resolve on full display.
Last night, we were all witnesses as Brandon Nakashima introduced himself in Dallas.— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) February 7, 2020
The 18-year-old announced his arrival in grand fashion, in defeat to Frances Tiafoe. Poise and focus beyond his years... pic.twitter.com/ETaypdzxKg
There was just one occasion in 2020 that a player saved a championship point in a Challenger final. That match turned out to be an absolute thriller on the clay of Punta del Este, Uruguay. The first clay-court final of the year featured defending champion Thiago Monteiro against former Roland Garros semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato. Monteiro would fight off three match points at 5-4 in the third set, before prevailing 7-6(3), 6-7(6), 7-5 after two hours and 51 minutes. He turned in a clutch serving performance as well, denying eight of nine break points faced.
While Nakashima/Tiafoe and Monteiro/Cecchinato certainly brought the fireworks, look no further than the Trieste semi-final between Carlos Alcaraz and Lorenzo Musetti for a glimpse into the future of the ATP Tour. The Spaniard would prevail 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 en route to his maiden Challenger crown. The great potential of the teenagers was on full display as they slugged it out for two hours and 14 minutes.
Bendigo, Iasi, Split & Trieste Make Dazzling Debuts
Four tournaments made their debut in 2020, with Bendigo, Australia, leading the charge in January. When the year began, Australia had witnessed widespread devastation due to bushfires that ravaged the country. The fires greatly impacted both the Australian public and the surrounding wildlife and environment. In the tennis world, hazardous air quality in Canberra - Australia's capital city - forced the relocation of the ATP Challenger Tour season opener. Tennis Australia officials made the unprecedented decision to move the Apis Canberra International to Bendigo, also the site of next week's Challenger 80 event.
As the surrounding region continued to cope, the Challenger in Bendigo provided a moment of inspiration. With a total of 997 aces hit during the week, AU $99,700 was raised for the Australian Red Cross disaster relief.
In August, the new tournament in Trieste, Italy helped kick off the Challenger restart, while the new 100-level event in Iasi marked the second tournament held in Romania.
In October, pro tennis returned to Split, Croatia for the first time since 1998, as the beautiful seaside city welcomed the inaugural Split Open. The second-largest city in Croatia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe, nestled on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea.