Ten To Watch In 2020: ATP Challenger Tour
Christopher O'Connell [No. 119]
It was the feel-good story of the 2019 season. For many years, O'Connell was battling outside the Top 200 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, grinding on the ITF circuit and ATP Challenger Tour. And in 2018, the 25-year-old Aussie took up a second job cleaning boats while recovering from a knee injury. But perseverance pays off and that is certainly applicable for the Sydney native.
From not having an ATP Ranking to open the 2019 season to sitting at a career-high No. 120 to conclude his campaign, O'Connell made the most of his opportunities. After reaching nine finals on the ITF circuit from March to July, he took the next step and lifted his first Challenger trophy on the clay of Cordenons. And he was not done there, advancing to three more finals and adding another trophy in Fairfield. There, he earned his first Top 100 win in three years, upsetting Steve Johnson in the championship match. With a surge of momentum at his back, the upstart Aussie has his sights firmly set on the Top 100 and beyond in 2020.
Emil Ruusuvuori [No. 123]
Ruusuvuori announced his arrival with authority in 2019. The Flying Finn will be one to watch as he continues his Top 100 push this year. Up to a career-high No. 124 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, he rose nearly 300 spots since the start of the year. From battling to merely gain entry into Challenger tournaments to becoming a threat to lift every trophy, it was a whirlwind season for the Finn.
It didn't take long for Ruusuvuori to reel off a ruthless run of 36 wins from 48 matches, capped with a title on home soil in Helsinki. A fearless ballstriker, he also prevailed on the hard courts of Fergana, Mallorca and Glasgow, putting an emphatic stamp on a breakthrough campaign. As 2020 gets underway, it's a matter of when, not if, he'll crack the Top 100.
Sumit Nagal [No. 130]
India's No. 2 made a grand entrance on one of the game's biggest stages in 2019. In August, Nagal was standing on Arthur Ashe Stadium, under the lights on Day 1 of the US Open. His opponent: Roger Federer. Facing the opportunity of a lifetime, the qualifier would show what the stars of the ATP Challenger Tour have to offer, taking the first set against the Swiss star before eventually succumbing.
A little momentum can spark even greater things and that was certainly the case for Nagal. Just two weeks later, he would kick off an impressive month of September with a final in Banja Luka, title in Buenos Aires and semi-final run in Campinas. In November, he rose to a career-high No. 127 in the FedEx ATP Rankings and is targeting a Top 100 breakthrough in 2020.
Zhizhen Zhang [No. 138]
That number - 138 - might not seem significant at first glance. But for Zhang, holding his nation's highest-ever ATP Ranking is a monumental achievement. In the final weeks of the 2019 season, the budding Chinese star surpassed countryman Wu Di's career-high of No. 140.
Armed with a confident attitude and big game, it's no surprise that Zhang is embracing the pressure of being China's top player. A two-time Challenger champion last year, he will look to take the next step as the calendar flips to 2020. And the Shanghai native already owns a statement win on the ATP Tour, upsetting Kyle Edmund at the China Open in Beijing. With experience on the big stages and a winning mentality, the sky's the limit for the 23-year-old.
Juan Pablo Varillas [No. 143]
Tennis in South America is on the rise on the ATP Challenger Tour. Following Christian Garin, Juan Ignacio Londero and Hugo Dellien's breakthrough campaigns in 2018, it was Varillas' turn to put Peru on the map.
The rising Peruvian star made a statement in the final months of the 2019 season, securing his nation's first Challenger crown in 11 years. He captured his maiden crown on the clay of Campinas and one week later, he would notch a second title in Santo Domingo. From outside the Top 400 in September to a year-end spot of No. 142 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, the Lima native found his stride in a hurry.
Tallon Griekspoor [No. 175]
At the age of 23, Griekspoor is launching a new era of Dutch tennis. After claiming his first Challenger title in 2018, the Haarlem native made his mark with a standout 2019 campaign.
Griekspoor rose to a career-high of No. 161 after reaching the final in Tampere and lifting his second trophy on the clay of Banja Luka. The Dutchman is not afraid of the big stages either, earning Top 20 wins over Stan Wawrinka and Karen Khachanov at his hometown ATP 500 event in Rotterdam. Boasting an aggressive mentality and strong baseline game, Griekspoor is looking to guide Dutch tennis into the new decade.
Joao Menezes [No. 189]
Two Brazilians - Menezes and Thiago Seyboth Wild - tasted victory for the first time last year and are poised for even greater things in 2020. We'll get to Seyboth Wild in a moment, but first let's reflect on his countryman's breakthrough campaign.
Menezes deserves plenty of attention after his impressive 2019 season. Weeks after registering his first Top 100 win over Alexander Bublik in Puerto Vallarta, he streaked to his maiden title in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The 23-year-old would also add a final finish on the hard courts of Binghamton, followed immediately by a gold medal performance on clay at the Pan American Games. From outside the Top 400 to open the season to a career-high of No. 189, Menezes is certainly one to watch in the coming season.
Thiago Seyboth Wild [No. 211]
Menezes' countryman produced his best tennis in the final weeks of 2019, leaving an indellible mark on the season. Seyboth Wild became Brazil's fourth teenage Challenger champion with a statement run in Guayaquil, reeling off six wins in six days to lift his first trophy.
The 19-year-old #NextGenATP prospect - also the US Open boys' champion in 2018 - would follow that with a semi-final finish in Montevideo to cap the season. Having previously never reached the last four of a Challenger tournament, it was a perfect finish to the season. And one that could spark even greater things in 2020.
Sebastian Korda [No. 249]
The two lowest-ranked players on our list hail from the United States. We open with the 2018 Australian Open boys' champion Korda, who transitioned to the pros with great success in 2019. Sitting just inside the Top 250 to finish the season, the Florida native reached his first finals in Nur-Sultan and Champaign. And it was in Champaign that he held a championship point in the deciding tie-break, before succumbing to J.J. Wolf.
The son of former World No. 2 Petr Korda, the 19-year-old made the most of his opportunities last year. Having dropped his first seven matches at the Challenger level entering 2019, he turned in a 21-13 record to soar nearly 300 spots in the FedEx ATP Rankings. Now the youngest American inside the Top 250, look for Korda to continue building his game in 2020.
Brandon Nakashima [No. 367]
If you hadn't taken notice of Nakashima in 2019, this is your opportunity to jump on the American's bandwagon. Don't let the No. 367 next to his name fool you, this kid is one of the most talented budding prospects on tour.
In just seven Challenger appearances last year, the 18-year-old reached a quarter-final in Tiburon and semis in both Fairfield and Charlottesville behind upsets of Taro Daniel and James Duckworth. A fearless and intelligent ballstriker, Nakashima is as aggressive as he is cerebral on the court. He capped his junior career with a semi-final run at the US Open in September.