A look inside at the venue.

PHOENIX—While the second week of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells has played out, another tournament hosted the likes of Matteo Berrettini, Diego Schwartzman and Gael Monfils.

All three of the established veterans on the ATP Tour opted to make the quick trip to the Phoenix Challenger with wild cards in hand after enduring early exits at the first ATP Masters 1000 event of the season. The Arizona Tennis Classic is a popular haven for competitors seeking more match play in between the two stops of the Sunshine Double, and through passionate leadership, continued community support and consistent player buy-in, it's no surprise this highly-regarded event was upgraded to a brand new 175 level this season.

Tournament founder Jonathan Levine, a former all-American who later reached the third round of the US Open, spoke with Baseline to discuss the work behind the scenes to pull off a successful event at the historic Phoenix Country Club.

To start, can you give us a snapshot of the vision behind getting the Phoenix Challenger off the ground four years ago?

LEVINE: Specifically, I was the one that implemented the tournament to come to Phoenix and then put it together with a team of people, volunteers and an organization. We had some great consultants that had been in the business for forever. When we were able to get the week that we wanted (it was in Dallas up until 2018), we scrambled to make the first year work and secured the venue here with the Phoenix Country Club. It's primarily a golf club, but there is a nice tennis membership and they were excited to have it so we were able to work with them on the date and the use of the club, the facilities. The passion that I have for the game is I think what motivated me to want to see it through.


Like so many in the industry, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a curveball your way. How did you manage to navigate those uncertain waters and ensure this wasn’t a one-and-done event?

LEVINE: We implemented a lot of the changes that we thought would upgrade the event from 2019 and were four days away from the tournament when we had to cancel. We had such momentum, so it took the wind out of our sails. But we felt we had learned a lot, were ready to run it in 2020 and so we decided to give it a shot in 2022. The improvements really came out great and I think everyone loved it. We have a strong sponsor base, which makes the tournament happen from a financial standpoint. And we are a nonprofit – all the proceeds go to the Phoenix Children's Hospital, so the community really gets behind the event. The caliber of play is insane, we love the venue. So it's got the makings to be something great.

Talking caliber of play. This tournament has the unique spot of being held during the second week of 1000-level event, resulting in a very competitive entry list. How do you approach the wild card game? It seems strategically, it’s best to wait and see if there are any upsets at Indian Wells to gauge interest in higher-ranked players seeking additional matches?

LEVINE: A lot of Americans typically can go home to train. But the player field remains very strong because there are a lot of foreign guys that come over for Indian Wells or Miami, and they don't have a place to stay in between. As far as the wild cards go, yes, we definitely wait it out to see if there's a top guy that might lose who hasn't been playing his best, or wants some more matches. Some would rather play another tournament than wait 10 days to two weeks before Miami. So we have to play the waiting game a little bit versus awarding wild cards much earlier.

And that seemed to pay off quite well with the three names you added?

LEVINE: It's a fluid situation but it can work to our advantage like it did this year with Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini. Gael Monfils, we awarded much earlier because he had been injured and wanted to commit to us if he lost early. Most guys, they're not willing to do that because they're not thinking about losing. We announced him very early on, which we normally don't. That was a great catch to get him.

The first year David Goffin wanted that wild card, he was 21 in the world. When Berrettini won the title, he was ranked 57. Six months later, he was in the semifinals at the US Open. We also had Casper Ruud in that event, not many people know that he lost in the third round. The player field changes, but it changes from one great player to another great player. So we're good with it.

I believe there are five events as of now that represent the new 175 level on the ATP Challenger Tour. What does that involve for your team? And as you continue to grow, are there hopes of one day holding an ATP event in your community again (shoutout to Scottsdale) or are you happy being at the top of the Challenger class?

LEVINE: Frankly, we love the week that we have. The only difference for us is the Challenger Tour has had new initiatives to try to elevate the level of standards for the tournaments and that includes prize money and just the offerings to the players, the conditions. Prize money is 40 percent more than what we did last year. And because we have a great sponsor base that wants to see the tennis, knows that our beneficiary is Phoenix Children's Hospital, they supported the increase.

When your budget goes up, you have to do more things to achieve a higher standard. As far as getting a 250, it's not available during that time. We're very content with where we're at and we work with the ATP on trying to continue to improve the event. Our number one goal is making the players feel warm and welcome. The feedback that I'm receiving from most of the players is very positive, which is what we look for.

To finish, what makes the Phoenix Country Club a great place to see professional tennis? How important is the fact it already has so many operational essentials in place compared to the alternative of temporary facilities?

LEVINE: The Phoenix Country Club is an institution in Phoenix as far as it being historic and being around for so long. They used to have the Phoenix Open Golf Tournament here many years ago, though tennis has always been part of it.

You don't see a lot of events at old historic clubs. And so there's a certain allure, a warm vibe that I think the players feel. The gym is fantastic, there’s a great dining area. Players can sit out on the patio, look at the beautiful golf course while they eat lunch if they want or just hang out. This event here in this kind of environment versus, like you say, a popup where you're building tents, I think this just trumps that by far.