Early-season U.S. Challengers showcase high-level talent

Early-season U.S. Challengers showcase high-level talent

A heavy dose of tournaments is enabling players to make significant rankings gains.

Leading up to the US Open, the tennis world converges on Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open, one of the leading events on the ATP and WTA tours.

Fans of the sport in the “Buckeye State” didn’t have to wait that long this year to get their fix of top-level tennis, though, with an ATP Challenger tournament in Cleveland this week and one in Columbus, Ohio, right before the Australian Open.

In fact, there’s been an extensive stretch of tournaments in the US at that level throughout the course of 2019, culminating with next week’s event in Dallas, where none other than world No. 7 Kei Nishikori is the defending champion.

Playing the event last year as he worked his way back into form following a lengthy layoff, Nishikori defeated rising American Mackenzie McDonald in the final. While Dallas won’t be featuring any top-10 talent this year, the field will still showcase a number of former top-50 to -100 players, along with a mix of young players and veterans trying to reach that level for the first time.

That’s been the case with the American Challenger stops in 2019.

This year, the lower-rung tournaments right under the main ones on the ATP Tour went through some changes, where the draws have expanded from 32 to 48 players—with first-round byes for the top 16 seeds—and the institution of a new classification level.

The first stop in the US on the revised circuit was the Orlando Open in Florida in the opening week of the season. The final saw top seed Darian King take on American Marcos Giron, who defeated three seeds on his way to the championship match. Giron would go on to capture  the first Challenger title of his career by defeating King in straight sets, and he has managed to continue his impressive start to the year with a run to weekend play in Cleveland.

The next Challenger took place the following week in Columbus, Ohio—or, in other words, in J.J. Wolf’s backyard. The 20-year-old plays collegiate tennis at the Ohio State University and benefited from the local support to win his first Challenger title, which helped him crack the top 300.

After Columbus, the players converged in Newport Beach, Calif., for the latest event on the Oracle Challenger Series. The American with the highest points total after the series is done gets a wild card into the ATP Masters tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. There was nearly an all-American final as Donald Young, trying to rebound from a difficult 2018 campaign, advanced to the semifinals as an unseeded player. His run ended in a third-set tiebreak loss to Canadian Brayden Schnur, who then lost the final to defending champion Taylor Fritz, with the victory taking the Californian to the top 40 for the first time in his career.

While Americans have been posting stellar results so far on home soil—a finalist playing for the US is guaranteed in Cleveland this week with Giron taking on fellow UCLA Bruin Maxime Gressy in the semis—international players have also been making their mark. Darian King of Barbados is going for his second final of the year as he takes on Mikael Torpegaard of Denmark.

The traveling life of a professional on the ATP Tour can often be quite hectic. This early-season run of Challenger events in the US minimizes that, and is also beneficial for local observers of the game, who get to catch high-caliber tennis only a short distance away.

This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:

WTA St. Petersburg: Starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 5 a.m. ET, catch live coverage of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy featuring Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova.

WTA Hua Hin: Top seed Garbine Muguruza headlines the field from Hua Hin. Watch every match of the Thailand Open, starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 3 a.m. ET.