Ten To Watch In 2021: ATP Challenger Tour
The budding stars you don't know, but you should
As crazy, unpredictable and unprecedented as the 2020 season was, one thing left us captivated on the ATP Challenger Tour. A bevy of fresh faces entered the fray, challenging the established stars and introducing themselves with aplomb.
The #NextGenATP contingent was bolstered by the arrival of Carlos Alcaraz, Lorenzo Musetti and Sebastian Korda, with each lifting their maiden Challenger trophies while gaining global attention on the Grand Slam stage and the ATP Tour. And with the likes of Aslan Karatsev and Jurij Rodionov also soaring up the FedEx ATP Rankings, the season provided many unexpected and intriguing breakthroughs on the Challenger circuit.
So, which budding stars should you keep an eye on in 2021? We look ahead to the players that are eager to follow in their footsteps on the ATP Challenger Tour in the coming year.
Francisco Cerundolo [No. 139]
The man they call Fran was one of the breakout performers of the 2020 season and there is little to suggest that he won't carry the momentum into the new year. If you blinked, you may have missed the 22-year-old's rapid rise in October and November. But be assured, he's just getting started.
Inconspicuous yet ruthless, Cerundolo is poised to become a household name across the tennis world. He put the rest of the tour on notice in the final months of 2020, reeling off 20 of 23 matches and lifting three trophies - tied for the most on the ATP Challenger Tour. His dominant run saw him soar more than 100 spots to a career-high No. 139 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, becoming the youngest Argentine in the Top 200.
And if that wasn't an impressive feat in itself, his success on the court is coming while he's dominating in the classroom. Cerundolo is pursuing a bachelor's degree in management, taking online classes in economics and finance while competing on the road.
Marc-Andrea Huesler [No. 148]
Another of 2020's unheralded breakout stars, Huesler quietly built an impressive portfolio of titles and statement wins. The only player to lift Challenger trophies on multiple surfaces a year ago, he was one of the more dominant players on the planet following the tour's restart in August.
Not only did Huesler triumph on the clay of Sibiu and speedy carpet courts of Ismaning, in back-to-back tournaments no less, he also stepped up to the ATP Tour in grand fashion. The 24-year-old Swiss streaked to the semi-finals at the ATP 250 stop in Kitzbuhel, reeling off five straight wins as a qualifier, including his first career Top 20 victory over Fabio Fognini. Having opened the 2020 season on the sidelines with a foot injury, a healthy Huesler is hoping to continue turning the page on his career in 2021. He rose 132 spots to a career-high of No. 146 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Botic Van de Zandschulp [No. 156]
One year ago, we featured Tallon Griekspoor on this list. Now, it's time for another rising Dutch star to crash the party. At No. 155 and No. 156, respectively, Griekspoor and Van de Zandschulp are looking to take tennis in The Netherlands to new heights in 2021.
While his name might be a mouthful to pronounce, his game is certainly a handful for opponents. Armed with a mammoth serve and booming forehand, Van de Zandschulp boasts an imposing brand of tennis that has seen him climb the FedEx ATP Rankings in the past year. He leapt more than 50 spots in 2020, peaking at a career-high No. 152 after reaching a pair of Challenger finals in Koblenz and Ismaning.
And just one week ago, the Dutchman secured victories over Lorenzo Musetti, Joao Menezes and Mathias Bourgue to punch his ticket to the Australian Open. It marks his first Grand Slam main draw appearance. Alongside Griekspoor, they are a Dutch double threat to watch in 2021.
Hugo Gaston [No. 161]
It was one of the biggest upsets at Roland Garros in recent memory. A young upstart, aged 20, Gaston shocked the world with a thrilling five-set victory over former champion Stan Wawrinka. The scenes on Court Suzanne-Lenglen remain some of the prevailing images of the 2020 tournament. Sitting outside the Top 200 and having never reached a Challenger final, the Frenchman turned in a fairytale run to the Round of 16 on home soil.
Now, at No. 161 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, it's time for Gaston to bring that same talent and flair to the ATP Challenger Tour. The Toulouse native showed great maturity and resolve to not only defeat Wawrinka, but also push World No. 3 Dominic Thiem to five sets in the subsequent round. Having reached just one semi-final on the Challenger circuit - nearly one year ago in Bergamo - Gaston will be hoping to carry his Parisian magic to even greater heights in 2021.
Brandon Nakashima [No. 170]
Nakashima is the only repeat entry on this list from 2020. One year ago, the #NextGenATP American was sitting outside the Top 350, but he has since slashed his FedEx ATP Ranking in half, soaring from No. 364 to a career-high No. 166 in November. The 19-year-old has taken great strides in his development, demonstrating an impressive all-around game and unflappable mental fortitude.
A native of southern California, Nakashima became the youngest American champion since Frances Tiafoe in 2017 with his maiden title in Orlando. At the age of 19, he did not drop a set all week at the USTA National Campus. Nakashima also triumphed in his Grand Slam debut at the US Open (d. Lorenzi) and reached the quarter-finals in his ATP Tour debut earlier in the year in Delray Beach.
Aleksandar Vukic [No. 195]
and fellow former college stars J.J. Wolf [No. 127], Maxime Cressy [No. 168] & Arthur Rinderknech [No. 178]
For many, attending university in the U.S. and competing in the collegiate ranks is the ideal pathway to the pros. Often, junior players aren't ready to take the next step to the professional level immediately, and can benefit from the structure and coaching provided at an elite institution.
It seems like every year there is a former college star translating success to the ATP Challenger Tour. Recently, it was Cameron Norrie (TCU), Dominik Koepfer (Tulane) and Marcos Giron (UCLA), and in 2020 a bevy of players took the leap. Ohio State's Wolf, UCLA's Cressy and Texas A&M's Rinderknech all lifted trophies, surging towards the Top 100 behind breakthrough campaigns. And Vukic (Illinois) reached his first final in Monterrey.
In addition, Wolf and Cressy won their first Grand Slam matches at the 2020 US Open, eventually falling to Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, respectively. The spotlight couldn't have been greater for the Americans. Both have intriguing backstories, with 26 of Wolf's relatives having taken up a sport at either the collegiate or professional level, and the Paris-born Cressy moving to the U.S. as a teenager. Rinderknech, meanwhile, finished Top 5 in Challenger wins in 2020, posting a 22-12 record.
For Vukic, embarking on a journey from Australia to the University of Illinois was like going from one world to another. A three-time All-American at Illinois, 'Vuki' hails from Sydney, Australia, but has Eastern European heritage in his blood. His parents, who introduced him to the game at age five, are from Montenegro (dad) and Bosnia (mom).
The 24-year-old graduated with a degree in finance in 2018 and has battled on the ATP Challenger Tour ever since. In March, all the work finally paid off. In the week before the COVID-19 shutdown, Vukic reached his first Challenger final on the hard courts of Monterrey, Mexico (l. to Mannarino). He secured the biggest win of his young career in upsetting World No. 56 Feliciano Lopez in the second round. Vukic would later qualify for Roland Garros, making his Grand Slam debut after saving two match points and rallying from a set and a break deficit against Alcaraz. His mettle tested, the Aussie demonstrated great poise in punching his ticket to the main draw.
Now, just shy of his career-high No. 190 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, Vukic is hoping his breakout 2020 campaign carries to the new year. His efforts were already rewarded with a main draw wild card into next month's Australian Open.
Tomas Machac [No. 197]
Machac was the best kept secret on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2020. He's the #NextGenATP few are familiar with, but that won't last long. In February, right before the COVID-19 shutdown, the 20-year-old won his maiden Challenger crown on the indoor hard courts of Koblenz, Germany. And he's certainly shown that his game translates to all surfaces, storming through Roland Garros qualifying before pushing 27th seed Taylor Fritz to five sets.
At the age of 19, his victory in Koblenz marked the first time a Czech teen had lifted a Challenger trophy since Jiri Vesely in 2013. Having opened the year outside the Top 350, Machac would surge to the year-end Top 200, also reaching the final in Bratislava. It looks like 2021 is shaping to be even more fruitful for the Czech, having blitzed his three opponents to qualify for the Australian Open in Doha. He did not drop serve once.
Felipe Meligeni [No. 230]
We look outside the Top 200 for these last three entries. They are three players that made small strides in 2020 and certainly have the firepower to make some noise in the new year.
Exactly 27 years after his uncle Fernando Meligeni won his maiden Challenger title in Sao Paulo, Felipe lifted his first trophy in the same city. The 22-year-old Brazilian dropped one set all week at the Clube Hipico Santo Amaro in November, eventually rising to a career-high No. 230.
His uncle was a former World No. 25 and Roland Garros semi-finalist in 1999. During his career, Fernando claimed more than 200 matches, including wins over former World No. 1s Pete Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Patrick Rafter, Carlos Moya and Andy Roddick. Now, 27 years later, the Brazilian's nephew is carving a path of his own. He would kick off 2021 with his biggest win on a hard court, upsetting former World No. 24 Martin Klizan in Australian Open qualifying.
Kacper Zuk [No. 267]
The future of Polish tennis has arrived. His name is Kacper Zuk. The 22-year-old provided one of the upsets of the year in 2020, stunning current World No. 61 and top seed Vasek Pospisil on the indoor hard courts of Calgary, Canada. Just one month after defeating another Top 100 star, Dennis Novak, at the ATP Cup, Zuk would reel off four wins in five days to reach his first Challenger semi-final.
That spurred the Pole to dominate the ITF circuit upon the resumption of professional tennis in August. He would clinch three titles, posting a 15-0 record, en route to cracking the Top 300 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time. With an affable and infectious personality off the court, Zuk is a ruthless competitor between the lines. He may be slender in stature, but the 22-year-old packs a punch from the baseline and is a relentless attacking force. Having peaked at No. 259 in November, he is poised to continue to climb towards the Top 200 and beyond in 2021.
Duje Ajdukovic [No. 321]
In October, a new era of Croatian tennis launched in the seaside city of Split. The inaugural Split Open featured native son Ajdukovic among its semi-finalists. The 19-year-old made an impressive Challenger debut in his hometown, stunning former Top 100 players Martin Klizan and Jozef Kovalik. He dropped a combined 10 games in those two matches.
Born and raised in Split, near the Firule Tennis Club where the tournament is held, Ajdukovic is joined by former Top 10 stars Goran Ivanisevic, Mario Ancic, Nikola Pilic and doubles No. 1 Mate Pavic as Croatians who developed their games at that very site. Now, the budding #NextGenATP star enters his second season on the ATP Challenger Tour. He reached a second semi-final in Maia, Portugal, to conclude his 2020 campaign and the World No. 321 will be targeting the Top 300 and beyond as 2021 gets underway.