Top 10 Challenger Appearances
Tennis fans on the island of Mallorca are in for a treat over the next week. In an era where big stadiums and mammoth arenas dominate the sporting landscape, witnessing the greatness of a superstar in a smaller, more intimate setting still holds a special charm.
Those coming out to the Rafa Nadal Academy will soon have that opportunity, as former World No. 1 Andy Murray is set to continue his comeback in the cozy confines of the ATP Challenger Tour. Two weeks after kicking off his singles return at the ATP Tour stops in Cincinnati and Winston-Salem, the Scot is back to the Challenger level in search of matches and confidence.
Murray, who was sidelined for a large portion of the 2019 season due to hip resurfacing surgery, is beginning the journey to rediscover his rhythm on the court and find that winning feeling once again. He will look to do just that in the second edition of the Rafa Nadal Open by Sotheby's.
This has us thinking... What other elite players have made noteworthy appearances on the ATP Challenger Tour? Which superstars brought their world-class talents to the circuit? We take a look back at some other memorable Challenger visits.
And fear not. There's no need to hop on a plane to Spain. You can watch every moment of Murray's comeback debut with our free live streaming on ATPChallengerTour.com.
Andre Agassi - 1997 Las Vegas & Burbank, USA
Arguably the most memorable and captivating Challenger appearance of all time was the former World No. 1's return to the circuit in 1997. Less than two years removed from claiming the top spot in the ATP Rankings for the first time, Agassi - already a three-time Grand Slam champion - was struck down with a nagging wrist injury. He plummeted from No. 12 at the start of the year to No. 141 in November, and was eagerly seeking consistent match play before the year drew to a close. Hoping to halt his struggles, Agassi returned to his hometown of Las Vegas and the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank for a pair of tournaments. Pandemonium ensued as the American legend descended on the ATP Challenger Tour and would reach the final in Las Vegas and lift the trophy in Burbank. Just two years later, he would return to the pinnacle, finishing as the year-end No. 1 for the only time in his career.
Sergi Bruguera - 2000 Segovia, Spain
One of eight players from Spain to reach the Top 5 of the ATP Rankings, Bruguera had a great impact on tennis in his country. The Barcelona native, who notched 14 crowns at the Tour-level, ascended to a career-high of No. 3 in 1994 after winning his second straight Roland Garros championship. And six years later, with his career nearing its conclusion following a rash of injuries, Bruguera entered the prestigious Open Castilla y Leon in the Spanish city of Segovia. Just one week after reaching his last ATP World Tour final in San Marino, he would streak to the Challenger title in front of the Spanish faithful. One of the oldest and most revered events on the circuit celebrated its native son as champion, and the tournament would witness his retirement from professional tennis two years later.
Michael Chang - 2002 Calabasas, USA
At 14 years and five months, Chang owns the second-longest gap between ATP Challenger Tour titles. The American stalwart and former World No. 2 became the only 15-year-old to win on the circuit in Las Vegas 1987 and lifted his last professional trophy more than 14 years later in Calabasas, California. The 34-time Tour-level champion would retire at the end of the season with three more Challenger appearances on U.S. soil, as the home fans came out in droves to bid farewell. Now, Nishikori will look to follow in his coach's footsteps with a Southern California title of his own.
Fernando Gonzalez - 2008 Sunrise, USA
Staged in beautiful Sunrise, Florida, in the week between the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami, the BMW Tennis Championships consistently drew world-class talents in its seven years on the Challenger circuit. Its 2008 and 2009 editions were arguably the most impressive, with the likes of Fernando Gonzalez, Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling, Thomas Johansson and Sebastien Grosjean bringing significant star power to the cozy South Florida town. At World No. 12, Gonzalez became the second highest-ranked player to ever compete on the ATP Challenger Tour. He would reach the quarter-finals, falling to Chris Guccione, before clinching his 10th ATP World Tour title just two months later in Munich.
Goran Ivanisevic - 2001 Heilbronn, Germany
Ivanisevic's storied tenure on the ATP World Tour spanned nearly two decades and included an ascent to a peak position of No. 2 in the ATP Rankings. The big-serving Croatian's most memorable moment came in the twilight of his career in 2001, when the 29-year-old stormed to the title at the All England Club as an unseeded wild card and later competed at the season finale in Sydney. But few realise that Ivanisevic kicked off his campaign with an appearance at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Heilbronn, finishing runner-up to Michael Llodra. Having dropped outside the Top 100 due to shoulder injuries, the ranking rebuild began on the carpet courts of Heilbronn. He would vault to a year-end position of No. 12, rising more than 100 spots in the ATP Rankings.
Ivan Ljubicic - 2005 Zagreb, Croatia
A player won a Challenger title in the same year that he reached two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 finals and qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals? It happened in 2005! One of Croatia's most decorated stars, Ljubicic celebrated the 10th edition of his home capital's ATP Challenger Tour event - the Zagreb Open - with a surprise appearance. At No. 14 in the ATP Rankings, the top seed stormed to the title without dropping a set, and would later finish runner-up at the Masters 1000 stops in Madrid and Paris, before clinching his first year-end Top 10 finish.
Gael Monfils - 2013 Bordeaux, France
Monfils first broke onto the scene in the late 2000s, boasting four consecutive year-end Top 20 finishes and attracting hoards of fans with his stunning athleticism and charismatic personality. But the high-flying Frenchman struggled to consistently stay healthy over the years and he would enter 2013 after missing time with a persistent right knee ailment. Monfils saw his ATP Ranking fall outside the Top 100 in May and, in search of confidence, contested the prestigious ATP Challenger Tour event in the French city of Bordeaux. As an unseeded wild card, he battled to the title with wins over David Goffin and Michael Llodra. It was standing room only at the Villa Primrose throughout the week, as Monfils lifted the trophy in front of the home faithful. He would follow up the result with a run to the final at the ATP World Tour event in Nice the following week.
Andy Murray - 2019 Mallorca, Spain
There are only five former World No. 1s who have returned to the Challenger circuit after reaching the pinnacle of the ATP Rankings. This week, Murray joins Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten, Thomas Muster and Marcelo Rios on the list, as the Scot continues his comeback from hip surgery.
Similar to Agassi's comeback, Murray is seeking more matches in his return from injury. He enters the Rafa Nadal Academy to make his first Challenger appearance since 2005, when he reached the quarter-finals in Mons, Belgium. The Spanish faithful are sure to be out in force to catch a glimpse of the legend in the intimate Mallorcan confines. In search of his first match win in his return to singles, this could very well be the place where Murray kicks off his return to the Top 100 and beyond.
Thomas Muster - 1990 Cairo, Egypt & Agadir, Morocco
The only World No. 1 to hail from Austria, Muster enjoyed a decorated career on the ATP World Tour. At the age of 22, he was one of the promising young stars of men's professional tennis, having already claimed five titles and reached the Australian Open semi-finals. But when a drunk driver struck him during a tournament in Miami in 1989, severely injuring his leg, Muster returned to the ATP Challenger Tour to regain confidence and rediscover his match rhythm. The comeback would go down as one of the greatest in the history of the game. Muster reeled off 22 of 24 matches to open his 1990 campaign, including a pair of ATP Challenger Tour titles on African soil in Cairo and Agadir. The victories would mark the beginning of his journey to year-end No. 7 and Comeback Player of the Year honours, having also added his first Masters 1000 crown in Rome just two months later.
Kei Nishikori - 2018 Newport Beach & Dallas, USA
It is quite improbable for a player to punch his ticket to the Nitto ATP Finals less than a year after sitting on the sidelines with a debilitating wrist injury. Considering that player opened his campaign on the ATP Challenger Tour, it makes the feat even more impressive. Kei Nishikori created quite the stir when he kicked off 2018 in Newport Beach and Dallas, giving fans the opportunity to see the Japanese star up close in an intimate setting.
In search of confidence and match play, Nishikori would begin his run to the year-end Top 10 with a title at the RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas. Getting match experience and rediscovering his rhythm was essential for Nishikori in that moment, as he dropped just one set en route to lifting the trophy.
In the past 20 years, only three players have qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals after winning an ATP Challenger Tour title during the season. Ivan Ljubicic did it in 2005, Robin Soderling in 2009 and last year it was Nishikori's turn to pull off the feat.