Battle Ground

by: Andrew Friedman | October 29, 2014

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The ATP Challenger Tour is where players journey to earn the precious rankings points needed to stay alive and progress to the next level. (Photos by Andrew Friedman)

It’s a Monday night, and Robby Ginepri is playing tennis in the rain. At age 31, the American, a Georgia native, former Top 15 player and 2005 US Open semifinalist, has been engaged in an arduous comeback from an elbow injury he sustained in a 2010 bicycle accident. Two surgeries and more than three years later, his ranking is buried in the 400s. That’s why he’s here, on the good graces of a wild card, playing the Savannah Challenger at The Landings Club on Skidaway Island, GA, a 34-court facility, 12 miles from Savannah proper.

Ginepri has played in front of 23,000 people on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and on show courts all over the world, but the third set of his comeback effort here takes place in front of fewer than two dozen spectators, most of them organizers and volunteers. His father, who plans to play a senior event at this same club later in the spring, sits stoically in the stands.

Ginepri has never been an especially combustive player, but he’s overcome his circumstances to split the first two sets with his first-round opponent, Canadian Peter Polansky. When Polansky breaks him early in the decisive third set, however, Ginepri smacks a ball off the Har-Tru. He putters around in a circle. He lets his racquet drop. “Gaaah!” he exclaims.

Ginepri needs a stroke of fortune to turn things around, and when the heavens open up, he gets something like it: As a shower strafes the court, Polansky asks to stop play, is refused by the chair umpire, and loses focus. The shower swells into a storm, and with rain and wind engulfing them, Ginepri hangs on, holding serve, then breaking back. At 4-5, with the ground turning to mud beneath their feet, tournament supervisor Keith Crossland suspends play; within minutes, the club is a ghost town.

Ginepri lives to fight another day, even if it’s just to finish the same fight he was waging this evening.

Ginepri’s story epitomizes one aspect of the ATP Challenger Tour, often referred to—along with lower-tier Futures events—as the “minor leagues” of tennis. These tournaments, staged in locales as far-flung as Chennai, India; Tunis, Tunisia; Karshi, Uzbekistan; and Irving, Texas, are where players journey to earn the precious rankings points that are like the life credits in a video game, what’s needed to stay alive and progress to the next level, which in this case is the ATP World Tour. (As the ATP website points out, many of these events also bring “men’s professional tennis to countries where ATP World Tour events are not held . . . like Ukraine, Belgium, Slovenia, or Korea.”)

You might also think of Challengers as tennis’ equivalent of political primaries—waged in small towns, offering rankings points in place of delegates, and with participants periodically evaluating whether or not to remain in the race. They take place in clubs and other mid-sized venues, and dependably attract the full spectrum of players ranked anywhere from 50 or so on down, depending on who’s interested in playing a particular event, and who makes the cut as a qualifier, wild card or lucky loser.

Generally speaking, the cast of characters at a Challenger break down into four main categories: young hopefuls on the way up, older warriors on the decline, dinged-up players healing their ranking along with their bodies, and lifers who spend all or most of their career in the sometimes excruciating realm just beneath the rankings threshold that would earn them direct entry into ATP World Tour events, or at least into the qualifying draws.

Though relatively well known players often participate—in addition to Ginepri, Donald Young and Jack Sock were among the entrants in Savannah this spring—there’s no mistaking a Challenger for the big time. Rather than the customized, wraparound advertising that envelops the court at more prestigious tournaments, sponsor logos and banners hang on trees, or are fastened to fences; players lounges are improvised (at the Savannah Challenger, a homemade sign reading “players only” is taped to the door of the club’s café); crowds are sparse to non-existent during the early, weekday rounds; and scoreboards are changed by hand after every game rather than electronically during them.

But what’s missing in luxury can be compensated by charm. In the six years it has hosted this event, The Landings has developed a growing list of sponsors, some of whom are promoted between games by a DJ who interrupts his Top 40 changeover playlist to make such announcements as: “This Wednesday, it’s Ladies’ Day with $8 admission for day and night sessions. Sponsored by the Savannah Tennis League, serving up great tennis since 1979.”

The lack of a barrier between community and player can also make for some feel-good moments. Tournament director Scott Mitchell recalls that, in 2013, Ryan Harrison and his coach went to a nearby store, loaded up their car with canned goods and brought them back for a local charity. On the less charming side, players’ adherence to certain Tour-level amenities can seem out-of-touch, as when they call “towel” to linespeople old enough to be their grandparents.

The dynamics of the matches themselves can be contradictory, as well. On the one hand, a refreshing camaraderie is displayed as players look to each other for line-call verification and offer one another heartier congratulations than what is usually witnessed on the bigger stages. On the other, the pressures of what’s at stake can be daunting.

“What people don’t understand is that if you win a Challenger you get 80 to 100 [ranking] points,” says Bobby Reynolds. “That’s like making the third round in a major. We’re out here beating each other up for the points. It’s not for the money.”

Reynolds, an affable 31-year-old American, has played in a major as recently as the prior summer, when he qualified for Wimbledon, but he finds a lot to love on the Challenger circuit as well.

“To be at Grand Slams obviously is a different feeling of adrenaline,” he says. “But I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met across the country at these Challenger events who house me. It’s like an extended family whereas when you’re at a Tour event, it’s court-hotel court-hotel. Here it’s more casual.”

Reynolds also enjoys downtime with his fellow players on the fringe, where similar circumstances and a smaller crowd of players and fans make for war-buddy intimacy. He plays golf with Tim Smyczek and fishes with Alex Kuznetsov. “I don’t want to say it’s a fraternity,” Reynolds says, “but it is like that a little.”

Reynolds stays with local families on the road to save money, a common consideration among Challenger players.

“You win a Challenger at this level, it’s $7,000 or $8,000,” he says. “With the costs, you can’t piece it together. Let’s say you have a great year, you win three or four Challengers. That’s 30 grand. That’s not paying a coach. That’s not paying a mortgage back where you live.”

When he entered Savannah, Reynolds was thinking of hanging up his racquet after his last handshake in Georgia: “I have a kid at home,” he says. “It’s tough being away. I don’t want to be that father who’s gone 35 weeks a year to live a dream. I’ve been able to do it for 12 years. I went to Vanderbilt for three years, and am looking to go back and finish my degree. I will be able to find a pretty good job with that education.”

But buoyed by a first-round win in Savannah, Reynolds has already reevaluated, with his sights set on the qualifying tournaments for the majors that will take place later in the year.

At 23, Erik Crepaldi can afford to be more footloose than Reynolds. The Italian, whose home base is near Milan, is ranked in the 400s and in the last year has competed all over Italy, as well as in Switzerland, Turkey and Mexico, among other countries. He acknowledges that it’s difficult to soldier the solitude of traveling alone, but without any support from the Italian Tennis Federation, he can’t afford to have his father–coach along outside of his home country.

“But there’s a moment in tennis when you need to improve and need to learn many things, so it’s OK,” he says.

Crepaldi has just lost in the final round of qualifying, meaning that he earns neither ranking points nor prize money, but he had been steadily climbing the rankings to a career high of 416 last year, followed by a dip. At the moment, his roller coaster is climbing back up the rankings incline: A decent run at his last four tournaments has returned him almost to his personal best. This tournament began the day after Easter and Crepaldi sees a parallel: “Before you have the holy week, you need to suffer, then you can enjoy the life,” he says.

Somewhere between Reynolds and Crepaldi, there’s Illya Marchenko, a Ukrainian player who was once ranked as high as 67, but has been on an odyssey through the rankings for close to four years since he suffered meniscus injuries in both knees. His quest has taken him to India, Russia and Slovakia, along with many other places. Even after all that time, he’s only into the 170s, and says that, “I’m still struggling with my game, trying to come back. I need to win a lot of matches—to be confident, to be healthy—to be good enough to play the same level again.”

Marchenko is only 26, well within the prime of tennis life for a healthy player. Nevertheless, as it does for so many of his colleagues, the threat of retirement looms large and unappealing. “If you make the Top 100, you earn money for however long you’re there, but after that, it’s really difficult,” he says. “The players are all here because when you stop your career, you have nothing to do. You have to do something to earn money; we’re trying to survive.”

When it’s kill-or-be-killed, emotions can be naked. At this small venue, screams of anguish periodically fill the air, like howls from a nearby pod in an emergency room. The frustration can boil over in more unattractive ways as well. Says tournament director Mitchell, “One of the things we talk to the staff about before the tournament is that there are going to be some players who are stressed, who say or do things they normally wouldn’t, especially in the qualifiers. Sometimes, the crowd will think, ‘He’s a brat.’ Then, a few years later, they think that player’s attitude has changed, but it’s because they’re not trying to make a living anymore; they’re actually doing well.”

An added pressure at Savannah is that it’s part of the 2014 Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge. The men’s player with the best cumulative result in two of three Challenger events in the contest (Sarasota, Savannah and Tallahassee) will receive a wild card into Roland Garros, not just a chance for big prize money and a moment in the sun, but enough to breathe life into any dream for a little while longer.

It’s all relative out on the Challenger circuit. On the tournament’s first day, when the qualifying competition is completed, American Jean-Yves Aubone emerges triumphant into the main draw. At 26, the Miami resident is the same age as Marchenko, but how he defines success couldn’t be more different. Aubone left the tour in 2010 to go into the finance world but missed the game too much.

It was a voluntary decision, but Aubone jokes that it was actually an injury layoff . “I was injured . . . in the head,” he laughs. “The more I sat behind that desk, the more something inside me said, ‘I just want to give it a shot. I never really gave it a shot.’”

And so Aubone is back out in the trenches, fighting for a place on the big stage. As for playing on the outskirts of Savannah rather than at, say, Flushing Meadows, he says, “Since I’ve done this before, I understand the process. The USTA gave me a wild card to the Open in 2008, so I’ve been to the show. As far as I’m concerned, you can put me in the park. So long as it’s a tournament I will come out and I’ll be happy. I’ll take this any day as long as I know it’s the right path.”

The buy-sell-hold quandary is a mystery for just about everybody here, but not so for Jack Sock, the American prospect who at age 21 shows up like a goliath, one of the few players to saunter in with a team, radiating alpha energy. Where other players ask the tournament for a ride to and from their hotel, or ask each other “Who has the key?” to a shared vehicle, Sock has all the trappings of a rising star. With less on the line than many fellow competitors, many of whom claim to be laying low between practices and match play, Sock has been hitting up the tournament director for fishing accommodations.

Sock’s one of the lucky ones for whom success seems relatively assured, and the same is true of 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios. Sure enough, as the fates of their fellow competitors here remain ever murky, these two would reach the final, with Kyrgios winning to earn $7,200—a mere fraction of what he would end up making months later after he upset Rafael Nadal to reach the quarterfinals of Wimbledon—while Sock took home $4,240. (Ginepri, who lost his match to Polansky in Savannah, went on to win his first Challenger since 2003 in Tallahassee and with it the coveted Roland Garros wild card where he lost first round to Nadal.)

In the early going in Savannah, the criss-crossing fortunes of Challenger players is most dramatically illustrated by the first-round contest between American Donald Young and 18-year-old Japanese qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka, ranked 334. Young, the one-time junior world No. 1 has flitted in and out of the Top 100 throughout his career, never gaining a foothold. His tide is high at the moment: Ranked 74, he’s the tournament’s top seed.

But Nishioka comes out intense and unbowed, while Young evinces all the negative behavior forecast by Mitchell in early pressure moments, belittling his opponent’s passing shots as “lucky,” and chastising himself, as well.

By contrast, Nishioka is a study in positivity, covering the court like a Jack Russell terrier, moving forward and back, side to side, gliding across the Har-Tru, and fist-pumping his way onward.

“I haven’t played this bad in a while, a good while,” an increasingly frustrated Young says loudly enough for the late-afternoon crowd to hear.

Nishioka, who has been training at the Bollettieri Academy for three years, is staying on his own at a cheap hotel, and being coached by Tom Shimada. Nishioka continues his winning ways, getting a lead on Young’s serve at 5-3, causing the American to cry out, “I’m tired of playing f---ing Challengers. I’m at another level!”

Sure enough, Nishioka pockets the first set 6-3, then goes up 3-0 in the second. He’s never beaten a Top 100 player before, and the moment gets the best of him. Rather than finishing, he falters, and Young wins the second set, 6-3. But Nishioka rights the ship, and wins the third set, 6-1.

Young barely breaks stride to shake Nishioka’s hand at the net. But the youngster doesn’t seem to mind. It’s one of the high points of a Challenger event, the sense of witnessing a star possibly being born, of a player coming into his own and starting to realize his potential. He has something in common with most of the other players here, although it means something different for each of them: He has nowhere to go but up.

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