My First Challenger Title: Ferrero's Triumph In Napoli 1999
Every legend has had their start here. Regardless of potential and promise, all players have come through the ATP Challenger Tour as they begin their climb to the upper echelons of the game. However, not all paths to the top are created equal. While some enjoy slow and steady progressions over the course of many years, others have benefited from lightning-fast ascents. Such was the case for Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Many remember 'The Mosquito' for his incredible all-around game, predicated on stunning agility and a flawless forehand. The Spaniard reached the pinnacle in 2003, rising to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings after winning the title at Roland Garros. But few recall where Ferrero kicked off his meteoric march to the top.
The year was 1999. A 19-year-old Ferrero was first embarking on his professional journey. Little did he know that season would prove to be the catalyst that launched him to the Top 100, Top 50 and beyond - all in the span of seven months.
Ferrero was sitting at No. 200 in the ATP Rankings when he entered just his third Challenger main draw in Napoli, Italy. An unseeded wild card, he would make an immediate impact, stunning top seed and 48th-ranked Davide Sanguinetti in the first round, en route to the title. At the age of 19 years and one month, he was a Challenger champion.
"At that time, I was playing very well," Ferrero told ATPChallengerTour.com. "I had won four straight lower-level events and was invited to play some Challengers. Napoli was my third, but as young as I was, I was in great form and motivated to compete. I remember the final was very hard. I was always under pressure but managed to get the second set in a tie-break and that changed everything. I was very motivated in the third set and my opponent fell apart."
The final Ferrero refers to came against a Spanish qualifier named Juan Albert Viloca-Puig. He would eventually triumph 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-1. And the future No. 1 was not done there, adding a second Challenger crown on the clay courts of Maia, Portugal just two months later.
"Playing just three Challengers and winning one already made me realize that I could be there, competing with the best. It encouraged me to do even better. There are players who take several years to make the jump to the biggest tournaments. I was lucky to pass quickly, playing only six or seven Challengers before competing on the ATP Tour."
That second victory on the Portuguese clay propelled the Spaniard to the Top 100. And he would celebrate an even bigger title towards the end of that fruitful 1999 campaign, prevailing on the ATP Tour for the first time in Mallorca. From No. 200 to open the season to a year-end No. 44 in the ATP Rankings. The ascent to No. 1 was well underway.
Ferrero's 1999 Campaign
||Mallorca ATP||Won title
Twenty years later, Ferrero's impact on the ATP Challenger Tour continues. From player to tournament director, he has transitioned to running the show at the Ferrero Challenger Open in his hometown of Villena. Last week, the tournament held its second edition, with Pablo Andujar retaining his title on the Spanish clay.
Held at the 39-year-old's JC Ferrero Equelite Sport Academy, the world-class facility features 10 clay courts, eight hard courts, one grass court, as well as a 400m running track, football field, nine-hole golf course, fully-equipped gym, player residences and a school.
For Ferrero, establishing an ATP Challenger Tour event in Villena, and thus bringing professional tennis back to his home region, is a great source of pride. It is an integral part of a new three-week Spanish swing in April, sandwiched between tournaments in Marbella and Murcia.
"We are always staging many tournaments at the academy, but to have one at this level makes me really proud," added Ferrero. "All fans of tennis in this area miss the [former ATP Tour] Valencia Open and we love being able to offer them a professional tournament again. I am proud of the result and we now have a junior event and the Challenger in back-to-back weeks. It takes a lot of work, but we are delighted to be able to offer this at the academy."
Ferrero also admits that while there has been a learning curve in running a professional tournament, his unique perspective as a former player has helped him provide a world-class experience.
"Knowing what the players want is very helpful. It is easier to manage a tournament and have a clear understanding of what all sides want. As a director, you come to realize that when you are a player you aren't aware of the great effort they make for you in the tournament. That's my goal. To make sure they have everything they need and make it a great experience."