Summer Challenger stretch fosters US Open dreams for players

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WATCH—Match point from Kokkinakis' win over Federer in Miami: 

While the top players on the ATP World Tour have been ramping up their preparation for the US Open at 500-and 1000-level events the past few weeks, dozens of others have been taking the road less traveled.

Over a recent four-tournaments-in-five-weeks stretch, a mix of up-and-comers and veterans trying to recapture past glory have battled it out in a series of outdoor hard-court Challenger events across the U.S., each of which boasts a roster of past champions that have gone on to great acclaim on the main tour.

Before this week’s event in Vancouver, the fourth event was the just-completed Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos, Calif., where Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan was the defending champion. Though the 21-year-old didn’t enter the tournament this year, emerging talent rose to the forefront all week as three of the four semifinalists were 22 or younger: Thanasi Kokkinakis, who beat Roger Federer earlier this year; former NCAA standout Christopher Eubanks; and Lloyd Harris, who’s been on a tear this summer.

In the final, Kokkinakis defeated Harris for his first Challenger title in three years.

The hard-court run kicked off in Winnetka, Ill., which took place during the second week of Wimbledon. In professional tennis, possessing the “on to the next one” mindset is as important as a big serve, and the Nielsen Pro Tennis Championships—which has been around since 1984—welcomes players to the U.S. whose grass-court run didn’t go as planned. 

This year, Evgeny Karlovskiy, a 24-year-old from Russia, won his first career Challenger title to join a roster of past champions that includes James Blake, the former world No. 4 who won in 2011 for one of his last career titles; and Jack Sock, whose 2013 victory put him into the Top 100 for the first time.

After that, the next U.S. tournament was the Levene Gouldin & Thompson Tennis Challenger, located in Binghamton, N.Y. Nineteen-year-old Jay Clarke—fresh off a surprise run to the semifinals in mixed doubles at Wimbledon—won the 2018 title, making him the third Brit in four years to emerge triumphant after Cameron Norrie last year and Kyle Edmund in 2015. Back when he was still making a go of it in singles, Leander Paes captured the inaugural edition of the event in 1994.

From there, it was on to “Bluegrass Country” for the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships, which has been a fixture of the tour since 1995. Harris won the 2018 title over Stefano Napolitano in a battle of 22-year-olds. His victory stopped a two-year reign by Americans as Michael Mmoh won last year, while Ernesto Escobedo took the 2016 tournament. Their compatriot, John Isner, captured his first career Challenger title there back in 2007.

Looking back at the rosters of past winners at each event, it might be hard to top Aptos, though.

Back in 2005, after making the most of his Wimbledon wild card with a run to the third round, Andy Murray—still navigating the professional tour as a teenager—turned his sights to the summer hard-court season, and his first stop on the surface was the California tournament. There, the 18-year-old from Scotland swept through the field for the biggest title of his burgeoning career without the loss of a set. A few weeks after that, Murray won Binghamton, too.

Three years after those titles, Murray was a US Open finalist, and in 2012, he triumphed in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., for his first Grand Slam title.

Following the accomplishments of Murray, as well as 1993 winner and Hall of Famer Patrick Rafter, is a tall order for any player, but a future major champion could still be lurking in the draws of subsequent stagings of these four tournaments.  

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