Newport Beach Shines In Challenger Return To Southern California
The state of California has long been a popular destination for tournaments on both the ATP World Tour and ATP Challenger Tour. Take a look around and you'll understand why. From the coastline to the mountains, there is no shortage of stunning scenery and pristine sun-drenched weather is a staple of the region.
Challenger events in Aptos and Tiburon are established fixtures on the calendar, joined recently by tournaments in Fairfield and Stockton. For many years, however, the iconic BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells has been the lone tournament in Southern California. But that has changed in 2018, with the addition of two $150,000 events as part of the Oracle Challenger Series.
On Sunday, the inaugural tournament in Newport Beach crowned its first champion: California's own Taylor Fritz. Located less than an hour's drive south of downtown Los Angeles, it has marked the return of the circuit to the greater L.A. area - the first since nearby Carson departed the ATP Challenger Tour in 2010.
"It’s nice playing at home because I live close to here," Fritz, who lives 50 minutes from the Newport Beach Tennis Club, told ATPWorldTour.com. "It's a close drive to home and I’m just used to it I guess. I’m used to the weather and it feels like I’m playing with the home-court advantage.
"My family hasn't traveled with me much lately, just because it’s tough traveling with our baby, but it’s really nice having a tournament close to home because then everyone can come support me. It also helps me on the court having them there. They’re driving back and forth each day. I hope this tournament is going to get better and better every year."
Fritz has taken the lead in the Oracle Challenger Series standings, with the two top combined performers at the ATP Challenger Tour events in Newport Beach and Indian Wells earning main draw wild cards into the BNP Paribas Open, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event.
"We're very excited," said Indian Wells tournament director and former World No. 2 Tommy Haas. "When you have an opportunity to play at an event where the weather is ideal and you can play close to home as an American, it's perfect. From a professional point of view, you come here to try to get points and raise your ATP Ranking. That is, so you can then play the 250s, 500s and Masters 1000s and then the Grand Slams. Being here for the first time myself, with this great facility, it is something very special for the players."
Tournament director Christian Coleman admits they toured 20 different tennis facilities in the area and eventually decided on the Newport Beach Tennis Club, established in 1966.
"It's a great facility and close to the entertainment for the players here in Orange County," added Coleman. "A lot of boxes were checked when we came out here. Look at how close the fans are to the players. They're basically courtside for a world-class tennis event. It's just like Indian Wells in that sense."
"You also want a tournament atmosphere, which this has," said Haas. "Venues that don't have a clubhouse and the courts are too crammed, doesn't make it as exciting. But this is just incredible here. You look around here and it's a packed house all week. It makes for a great atmosphere and from a players' point of view, that's what you want."
The 20-year-old Fritz was joined by a strong crop of young Americans in the draw, alongside Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Stefan Kozlov, Reilly Opelka, Michael Mmoh and fellow Southern California native Ernesto Escobedo. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Escobedo relished the opportunity to play in front of the home crowd.
"I feel like there should be more tournaments here because it’s so nice here," said the 21-year-old. "It never gets super, super hot or super cold. It’s perfect conditions. This tournament is very nice. It’s awesome that it’s very close to my house, so I have my family and friends come watch me. It’s always good to have them see me play.
"One of my favourite places to go is Newport Beach. At the beach I just chill there with my friends and my family. It’s only 35 minutes from my house. It’s a great area. Very quiet, close to the beach, so many places to eat around here, so it makes your tennis week very comfortable."
"SoCal is great," added Opelka. "If someone’s complaining about SoCal, you’ve got some issues. The weather is perfect. There’s so much to do and so much to see. It’s a complete different culture out here as well. My best friends live in (nearby) San Clemente. They don’t play tennis – they pretty much just surf and skate – so that’s the difference between a Cali boy and someone growing up in Florida. I played tennis and they surfed and skated.
"It’s the first time they had a Challenger here and it’s as good as it gets. The hotel is great, city is nice, good fan turnout and it has a lot of energy."
With former World No. 4 Kei Nishikori joining the American stars in the field, fans flooded the Newport Beach Tennis Club throughout the week. Hoards of Japanese media mingled with the California press to provide the Challenger with plenty of exposure on both sides of the world. Nishikori's lone match of the week - a first-round defeat to Dennis Novikov - was televised in Japan on Wowow.
Just steps from the Pacific Ocean, Fritz surfed to his fourth Challenger title, dropping one set all week. Off to a 9-1 start to the season, also finishing runner-up in Noumea, the #NextGenATP American is back in the Top 80 and climbing the ATP Rankings once again. He is also up to third in the ATP Race To Milan.
"My main goal now is to be in the Top 50. I've been trying to do that for a while now and I think everything is starting to come together."