Best Of: From Challengers To Grand Slam Breakthroughs In 2022
The margins are razor thin between the ATP Challenger Tour and Tour-level players.
While every tennis player dreams of competing under the bright lights and on big stages, they must first pave their pathway on the Challenger Tour. Tennis legends like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic all started on the Challenger circuit before embarking on illustrious careers.
ATPTour.com reviews five players who went from Challengers to enjoying a breakthrough moment at a major in 2022.
Coming into the season, the Danish teen was outside the Top 100 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and was still seeking his first Grand Slam main draw victory. It didn’t take Rune long to rise to a career-high 10 in November following a standout year.
Rune was one of just nine teenagers to collect a Challenger title this year. In April, the-then 18-year-old triumphed at the Sanremo Challenger, where he dropped just one set en route to the title and defeated Italian youngster Francesco Passaro in the final.
Passaro (left) and Rune at the 2022 Sanremo Challenger trophy presentation. Credit: Sanremo Challenger
Only one man has earned more Challenger titles than Rune before his 19th birthday: Richard Gasquet (7). Rune, who is a five-time Challenger champion, was one of six men to claim a Challenger and Tour-level title in 2022.
A month after winning the Challenger 80 event in Italy, Rune collected his first Tour-level crown (Munich) and was a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, where he upset fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas.
After being sidelined for three years due to injuries and the pandemic, the 23-year-old enjoyed a career-best season that earned him a nomination for the ATP Comeback Player Of The Year.
Wu went on a 15 match-winning streak at the Challenger-level and collected three consecutive titles: Orlando, Rome, Indianapolis. The Chinese star carried his momentum into his Grand Slam debut at Flushing Meadows, where he and countryman Zhang Zhizhen battled through qualifying to become the first Chinese men to compete in the US Open main draw in the Open Era.
Wu Yibing is crowned champion at the 2022 Orlando Challenger. Credit: Orlando Open
The Hangzhou native reached the third round, where he faced defending champion Daniil Medvedev under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Medvedev went on to win in straight sets but Wu’s run at the US Open will be remembered as a major milestone in Chinese tennis.
“It’s been a tough few years for me,” Wu told ATPTour.com in August. “I really suffered from injuries and Covid in China. It seems like I can still play a little bit of tennis. I’m happy about what I did [at the US Open]. I love the people here, the crowd. Many Chinese people came to support, I love it.”
Nobody finished the year with a better winning percentage on the Challenger Tour than Draper. The 20-year-old boasted a 24-4 Challenger match-winning record and collected a season-leading four Challenger titles (tied w/ Pedro Cachin): Forli-2, Forli-4, Forli-5, and Saint-Brieuc. The lefty cracked the Top 100 for the first time this summer amidst a quick rise on the ATP Tour.
Jack Draper triumphs at the Saint-Brieuc Challenger. Credit: Philippe Kermoal
Shortly after earning his maiden Grand Slam main-draw victory at his home tournament, Wimbledon, Draper found success on the North American hard courts, including at the US Open, where he stunned sixth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round.
Tim Van Rijthoven
In February, the Dutchman advanced through qualifying en route to a runner-up finish at the Forli-4 Challenger (l. Draper). A few months later, Van Rijthoven won the ATP 250 event in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he upset the Top-3 seeded players: Taylor Fritz, Auger-Aliassime, and Medvedev. Van Rijthoven became one of six men since 2007 to win an ATP Tour title before being crowned champion at the Challenger level.
At the season’s final Slam, Van Rijthoven won a dramatic opening round five-setter. The Dutchman rallied from two sets to love down and saved seven match points to defeat Zhang. Van Rijthoven lost in the next round to eventual finalist Casper Ruud.
Although the Spaniard didn’t compete at the Challenger level in 2022, his rapid rise from the Challenger Tour to Grand Slam champion won’t soon be forgotten.
Alcaraz, who is the youngest year-end No. 1 in the history of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, found early success on the Challenger Tour. A four-time Challenger titlist, Alcaraz cracked the Top 100 for the first time following his title at the Oeiras Challenger in May 2021. The 19-year-old also collected the title at the 2020 Alicante, Barcelona, and Trieste Challengers.
Even the highest-ranked player in the sport began his professional journey on the ATP Challenger Tour.
Carlos Alcaraz lifts his maiden Grand Slam trophy in New York City. Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images