Back in June 2000, 18-year-old Tommy Robredo of Spain captured the first Challenger title of his soon-to-be-impressive career, defeating Jimy Szymanski in the championship match in Espinho, Portugal.
This past weekend, in the final of the Challenger in Poznan, Poland, Robredo rallied to defeat an opponent that wasn’t even born at the time of his first breakthrough: Rudolf Molleker of Germany.
While those two fought it out, a similar situation was taking place on U.S. soil as 34-year-old Dudi Sela of Israel beat Duckhee Lee, 21, of South Korea for the first-place prize at the Challenger tournament in Little Rock, Ark.
Molleker and Lee have both been pegged as having bright futures in the game, and have climbed up the rankings at a rather steady pace. But if they wanted to gain lessons on what it looks like to navigate the highs and lows of being a professional tennis player, they would be hard-pressed to find better examples at doing so than their respective final-round opponents.
It was only six years ago, when Robredo—a key member of the “Spanish Armada” that had a significant impact on the men’s game in the 2000s—notched his first victory over Roger Federer in the fourth round of the US Open, handing the Swiss his earliest loss at the tournament since 2004. In that same 2013 campaign, Robredo won what has been to date his last titles on the main tour, posting two victories on clay, traditionally his best surface. A four-time quarterfinalist at the French Open, 11 of Robredo’s 12 career singles titles have come on the dirt, results that made him a consistent member of the Top 15—with a career-high No. 5 ranking—for years.
For the majority of his career, Robredo’s presence on the main tour went largely unimpeded until injuries struck the past few seasons. With his ranking plummeting well into the triple digits, Robredo showed signs of a positive return last season, winning the title in Lisbon, Portugal, for his first Challenger crown in six years, when he beat one of this year’s clay-court standouts, Christian Garin, in three sets. This year’s victory in Poznan brought the 37-year-old’s ranking up nearly 70 spots and has him on the verge of a return to the Top 200.
Sela’s win in Little Rock helped him crack that threshold, as he jumped 45 places to 164 in the world. While his career hasn’t reached the heights of Robredo’s, one of Israel’s best singles players for the bulk of the 2000s has experienced his share of highlights. Nearly a decade ago, he cracked the Top 30 in the world and he’s reached two singles finals in his career.
Often taking the court against more physically imposing players, Sela has more than held his own, finishing in the Top 70 as recently as 2017. He’s won more than 20 Challenger singles titles, with his winning run in Little Rock coming against a wave of much-younger opponents.
While Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are all still dominating the game past the age of 30, both Robredo and Sela are still out there battling, too. However, to get even close to their career highs, they’ll both be forced to overcome some rather significant hurdles. Possessing similar playing styles, Robredo and Sela know the amount of work it takes to make it on the ATP Tour. With millions in the bank and careers that would be envious of many of their peers, the two have shown that they’re up for the challenge of going out on their own terms.