Moving On Up: Challenger Stars Make Seamless Transition
When Alex de Minaur lifted his first ATP Tour trophy at his hometown Sydney International in January, it was a breakthrough start to the year for the 20-year-old. As the Aussie solidified his place in the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings, it also marked the culmination of an successful transition from the ATP Challenger Tour to the upper echelons of the game.
De Minaur, who made great strides on the Challenger circuit in 2018, highlighted by his maiden title in Nottingham, is just one of many players who have benefitted from the experience gained on the circuit. Working your way up from the Challenger level to the ATP Tour is the natural progression for all competitors, and like De Minaur, a handful have made it look easy in the opening months of the year.
The month of February alone saw a bevy of 2018 stars break through with their first ATP Tour semi-final or better. Five players that lifted multiple Challenger trophies and won at least 20 matches last year, took the leap last month.
Juan Ignacio Londero
It all started with Juan Ignacio Londero. In front of friends and family, the Argentine would make a splash in his return to the ATP Tour, six years removed from his debut on the circuit. He captured his maiden crown at his hometown Cordoba Open, having previously never won a match at the tour-level.
After many years struggling with injuries off the court and consistency between the lines, it finally all came together for Londero. The Argentine was one of just three players to win at least 40 matches last year, including titles in Mexico City and Marburg, Germany. Just nine months after lifting that maiden Challenger trophy in the Mexican capital, he enjoyed his breakout ATP Tour campaign in Cordoba.
One week later, it was Reilly Opelka's time to shine. The 21-year-old American captured his first ATP Tour title at the New York Open, blasting to victory with a deciding tie-break win over Brayden Schnur.
In the final weeks of the 2018 season, Opelka capped a 34-11 Challenger campaign with back-to-back titles in Knoxville and Champaign. And he carried the momentum into the new season, cementing his place in the Top 100 and blasting to his first tour-level crown on the indoor hard courts of New York. Winning breeds winning, regardless of the level, and Opelka has adopted that mentality.
"Last year was huge for me," Opelka reflected. "It was the first time I consistently put together a lot of matches in a row. I reached a lot of semi-finals and I think the year before there wasn't one week where I had won three matches in a row. Being able to play on the Challenger Tour and not as many ATP Tour events, helped me string all those matches together. It gave me a lot of confidence and I learned a lot about myself and my tennis."
Despite falling in the final, Schnur also celebrated a breakout week in snowy New York. Having never won an ATP Tour match in his career, the former University of North Carolina standout reached the final as a qualifier.
If Londero and Opelka opened the door, Laslo Djere, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Ugo Humbert and Christian Garin kicked it down in the subsequent weeks. With all eyes on the ATP Tour 500 event in Rio de Janeiro, Djere edged Auger-Aliassime for the title. It was the first final for both players.
Last year, Auger-Aliassime was plotting his ascent almost exclusively on the ATP Challenger Tour, posting a 24-13 record. And with his fourth title in Tashkent, he joined an exclusive club as just the sixth player to lift as many trophies at the age of 18 and under.
Less than a year later, the Canadian teen has surged onto the ATP Tour scene, making a seamless transition in becoming the youngest player to reach a 500-level final. From No. 185 to a career-high No. 58 in the span of 10 months, the longtime tennis prodigy is one to watch as the year moves along.
Perhaps overshadowed by the storylines surrounding Djere and Auger-Aliassime, that week also featured a breakthrough for #NextGenATP star Ugo Humbert. Fresh off a title run at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Cherbourg, France, the 20-year-old Frenchman reached his first ATP Tour semi-final at the Open 13 in Marseille. There, he earned his first Top 20 win over Borna Coric.
But it all started last year for Humbert. After opening the 2018 season at No. 378 in the ATP Rankings, the Metz native finished in sixth place among Challenger win-loss percentage leaders, behind a 34-13 record (.723) and scored titles in Segovia, Ortisei and Andria. His ascension has been nothing short of remarkable, 'graduating' from the Challenger level in less than a year and already competing for titles on the ATP Tour.
Chilean pride was on full display one week ago in Sao Paulo, as Christian Garin streaked to his first ATP Tour final. One year after countryman Nicolas Jarry advanced to the Brasil Open final, Garin replicated the feat.
The 22-year-old has been in dominant form over the past year, soaring nearly 200 spots in the ATP Rankings to a career-high No. 72. After steadily making progress throughout his 2018 campaign, he put it all together in October, going 15-0 with three straight titles in Campinas, Santo Domingo and Lima. His 46 match wins were second-most on the Challenger circuit, behind only Jordan Thompson. And after surging to the title match in Sao Paulo, he has his sights set on even more tour-level success in 2019.