Challenger Season In Review: 20 Storylines In 2019
Sinner's Statement Season
It was a breakthrough unlike any other. The incredible ascent of Jannik Sinner is arguably one of the biggest storylines on the ATP Challenger Tour in recent history.
From competing in Tunisia and Kazakhstan on the ITF circuit in January to lifting the trophy at the Next Gen ATP Finals in November, Sinner's rapid rise was as awe-inspiring as it was shocking. In just the fourth Challenger appearance of his fledgling career, the Italian lifted the trophy on home soil in Bergamo in February. He was outside the Top 500 at the time and only 17 years of age.
Having chosen to forego a lengthy junior career in order to grit his teeth on the professional circuit, the decision paid dividends. It allowed Sinner to accelerate his maturation and development and that was evident throughout his 2019 campaign.
Sinner's victory in Bergamo not only made him the youngest winner of the year, but the youngest Italian champion ever. Then, his second triumph on the hard courts of Lexington put him in elite company as one of just 11 players aged 17 & under to win multiple titles. That list includes the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and recently Felix Auger-Aliassime. And Sinner was not done there. His campaign would come full circle with a season-ending triumph on home soil in Ortisei, becoming the second-youngest player to win three titles in a calendar year.
Amidst all the achievements and milestones, it was his rise up the ATP Rankings that stands out most. From a year-end position of No. 763 in 2018 to a Top 100 breakthrough to conclude his 2019 season, the Italian soared a total of 685 spots. To establish your game against world-class competition at such a young age, and have the level of sustained success that Sinner did, is purely remarkable. He would finish with a 28-7 record and was one of just four players with a win percentage of .800 or higher.
Nordic NextGen Revolution
The Nordic renaissance is kicking into high gear on the pro circuit. Never before have the northernmost European nations of Norway, Sweden and Finland enjoyed simultaneous success like they are today.
The soaring Swede and the flying Finn were two of the dominant forces on the ATP Challenger Tour this year, with both featuring atop the titles leaderboard alongside James Duckworth and Ricardas Berankis. Ymer's four crowns guided him to a debut appearance at the Next Gen ATP Finals, while 20-year-old Ruusuvuori became the youngest to win as many titles in a season since Hyeon Chung in 2015.
Ymer, who cracked the Top 100 in late September, also finished in fifth among win-loss percentage leaders, posting a 39-10 (.796) record. His dominant finish to the season included back-to-back indoor titles in Orleans and Mouilleron-le-Captif and a first Top 40 win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Ruusuvuori, meanwhile, will be one to watch in 2020 as he continues his Top 100 push. Up to a career-high No. 124 in the ATP Rankings, he rose nearly 300 spots since the start of the year, when he was competing full-time on the ITF circuit. In fact, it wasn't until April that he played his first Challenger this season. And it didn't take long for him to start a ruthless run of 36 wins, capped with a title on home soil in Helsinki.
The Duck's Domination
No one enjoyed more success on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2019 than James Duckworth. One year after Jordan Thompson led the tour in victories and trophies, it was his countryman who achieved the feat to conclude the season.
In the penultimate week of the season, Duckworth capped his campaign with a 49th match win and fourth title, prevailing in Pune. After undergoing a litany of surgeries in recent years, including foot, shoulder and elbow operations, the Aussie is finally back inside the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings for the first time since 2017.
Not only did Duckworth lead the tour with those 49 wins and four pieces of silverware, his rise of 145 spots in the ATP Rankings made him one of the biggest movers to the Top 100. The 27-year-old put in the work, reaching finals and winning titles throughout the world, from Bangkok to Las Vegas and Pune and Playford. The victory in Pune assured him of direct entry into the 2020 Australian Open.
40+ Match Wins & 3+ Titles In 2019
You Always Remember Your First
A total of 32 players entered the winners' circle for the first time this year. They ranged from 17-year-old Sinner to his 27-year-old countryman Lorenzo Giustino and also included #NextGenATP prospects Ruusuvuori, Ymer, Thiago Seyboth Wild, J.J. Wolf, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Yosuke Watanuki. The 19-year-old Seyboth Wild became the youngest winner from Brazil since 2012, while Ruusuvuori was the first from Finland since 2013.
Dominik Koepfer benefitted greatly from his maiden title on the lawns of Ilkley, earning a Wimbledon wild card and then streaking to the Round of 16 at the US Open. Soonwoo Kwon and Kamil Majchrzak also cracked the Top 100 soon after clinching their first titles, with Kwon also reaching the quarter-finals at the ATP Tour stop in Los Cabos and Majchrzak storming to the third round at the US Open.
Emilio Gomez and Federico Coria won back-to-back titles on the clay of Tallahassee and Savannah in April. Gomez is the son of former World No. 4 Andres Gomez, while Coria is the brother of former World No. 3 Guillermo Coria.
In a unique twist, Lucas Pouille won his first Challenger title just months after reaching the Australian Open semi-finals. Seeking confidence and momentum, he returned to the circuit in Bordeaux and became the first player to win his maiden Challenger title after his first ATP Tour crown since Kei Nishikori and Sergiy Stakhovsky both did it in 2008.
The Italian Onslaught
The green, white and red flag flew proudly on many occasions in 2019, as Italy continued to rack up the titles. The European nation led the ATP Challenger Tour with 15 titles from 10 different players this year. Sinner and Gianluca Mager both lifted three trophies, with Stefano Travaglia capturing a pair of crowns. We all know of Sinner's surge, but Mager and Travaglia also impressed with a combined 80 match wins.
The Arizona Tennis Classic in Phoenix provided two especially memorable moments for Italians. Salvatore Caruso earned the upset of the year with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over World No. 21 David Goffin, while Matteo Berrettini kicked off his journey to the Nitto ATP Finals with a title at the inaugural Challenger. Berrettini became just the fourth player to win a Challenger title en route to qualifying for the season finale since 1995.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo Sonego successfully defended his title on home soil in Genova, leading to a year-end position of No. 52 in the ATP Rankings. He is one of just five players to win on both the ATP Tour and ATP Challenger Tour this year, having also claimed his maiden tour-level crown in Antalya.
On The Comeback Trail: Tsonga, Pospisil & Chung
Working your way back from injury in Challengers can be a difficult process, even for the most established stars on the ATP Tour.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga admitted that "playing in Challenger tournaments helped me find the reasons why I was playing tennis again". The charismatic Frenchman was forced to find his game after undergoing left knee surgery, entering the season outside the Top 250. A perennial Top 20 player for his entire career, he found himself in uncharted territory, competing in his first Challenger since 2007. Tsonga would lift the trophy on home soil in Cassis, en route to a 230-spot jump in the ATP Rankings to year-end World No. 29.
Fellow former Top 30 stars Vasek Pospisil and Hyeon Chung are also on the comeback trail after lifting trophies in their returns from injury. Pospisil won 16 of 18 matches to close the season, including back-to-back titles in Las Vegas and Charlottesville. He is one year removed from undergoing back surgery to repair a herniated disc. And Chung was forced to the sidelines for six months early in the 2019 season, but returned with a vengeance. The Korean reeled off 13 of 14 matches including a title in Chengdu in his first tournament back.
Challenger Grads Step Up On ATP Tour
After breaking through on the Challenger circuit in 2018, many players did not waste any time in making strides on the ATP Tour. Juan Ignacio Londero, Reilly Opelka, Christian Garin and Hubert Hurkacz all won their maiden titles after dominating on the ATP Challenger Tour a year ago. Felix Auger-Aliassime took the leap as well, peaking at No. 17 in the ATP Rankings. And fellow #NextGenATP stars Miomir Kecmanovic and Casper Ruud both reached their first finals in Antalya and Houston, respectively.
Who will be among this year's graduates as the calendar flips to 2020?
Feel-Good Story Of The Year: Christopher O'Connell
Since 2014, the 25-year-old O'Connell has been battling on the ITF circuit and ATP Challenger Tour to realize his dreams. Many years grinding outside the Top 200 can take its toll on any player. Just last year, the Aussie took up a second job cleaning boats while recovering from a knee injury. But perseverance pays off and that is certainly applicable for O'Connell.
From not having an ATP Ranking to open the 2019 season to sitting at a career-high No. 120 to conclude his campaign, the Sydney native made the most of his opportunities this year. After reaching nine finals on the ITF circuit from March to July, he took the next step and lifted his first Challenger trophy on the clay of Cordenons. And he was not done there, advancing to three more finals and adding another trophy in Fairfield. There, he earned his first Top 100 win in three years, upsetting Steve Johnson in the championship match.
The Unstoppable Tommy Paul
Of all players with at least 30 matches played in 2019, no one had fewer losses than Paul. The American dominated from start to finish, carrying the momentum from his maiden title in Charlottesville to conclude the 2018 season. This year, he posted a staggering 30-5 record and finished in second place among win percentage leaders (.857), only behind Ricardas Berankis (.889).
Behind a mature approach and more determined attitude, the 22-year-old stepped up under pressure. A first clay-court title in Sarasota was followed by victories in New Haven and Tiburon. It was in New Haven that Paul cracked the Top 100 for the first time, eventually peaking at No. 81 in the ATP Rankings.
Giron Saves Six Championship Points In Houston
On the penultimate Sunday of the season, Marcos Giron turned in arguably the most improbable comeback of the year. The American rallied from 1/6 down in the deciding tie-break to stun Ivo Karlovic for the Houston title. He saved SIX match points in the process, including two on the Karlovic serve.
Giron concluded his campaign exactly how it started, having opened the 2019 season with a maiden title in Orlando. The 26-year-old is just shy of the Top 100, jumping to No. 102 in the ATP Rankings.
A Debut For The Ages: 15-Year-Old Carlos Alcaraz
The month of April was one for the kids on the ATP Challenger Tour. In back-to-back weeks, Carlos Alcaraz became the first player born in the year 2003 to win a match (in Alicante) and Italy's Lorenzo Musetti became the first born in 2002 to win a match (in Sophia Antipolis).
In fact, at the ripe age of 15, Alcaraz became the fourth-youngest match winner since 2000. Only Felix Auger-Aliassime, Rafael Nadal and Nikolai Soloviev were younger when they won their maiden match. And the fact that Next Gen ATP Finals champion Jannik Sinner was the Spaniard's first victim makes the occasion even more special.
Alcaraz would go on to reach the third round in Murcia the following week, securing his first Top 200 win, and added a quarter-final finish in Sevilla in September.
Varillas Puts Peru On The Map
Tennis in South America is on the rise. The continent is steadily making progress on the professional scene, with Nicolas Jarry and Cristian Garin bringing Chile back into the spotlight and Hugo Dellien putting Bolivia on the map. In October, it was Peru's turn to enter the fray.
Juan Pablo Varillas secured his nation's first Challenger crown in 11 years with his maiden title on the clay of Campinas. And one week later, he would notch a second title in Santo Domingo, soaring to No. 142 in the ATP Rankings.
Zhang Makes History For China
In 2016, Wu Di lifted China's first ATP Challenger Tour trophy. One year later, Wu Yibing became its first teenage titlist. And last month, Zhang Zhizhen joined his countrymen in securing a slice of history, claiming the first ever all-Chinese final in Shenzhen.
It was a second title for the Shanghai native nicknamed 'ZZZ', having also prevailed in Jinan earlier this year. He is up to a career-high No. 139 in the ATP Rankings - the highest ranking ever earned by a Chinese player.
Purcell & Saville Dominate Doubles Circuit
Playford, Launceston, Zhangjiagang, Anning, Seoul, Binghamton and Traralgon. Seven titles, three continents, one impressive team.
Max Purcell and Luke Saville dominated the doubles circuit in 2019, securing seven trophies and a whopping 41 match wins together. The Aussie pair also appeared in three ATP Tour events together, earning their first match victory on the circuit in Antalya.
20 Years On, Roger Reflects
Two significant 20-year anniversaries arrived in 2019. In April, we reflected on the first Challenger title of former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero - in Napoli 1999. And in October, it was Roger Federer's turn, celebrating 20 years since his lone trophy lift in Brest, France.
Federer's first professional title was a critical moment in his fledgling career. He dropped one set en route to the Brest crown, defeating Max Mirnyi 7-6(4), 6-3 in the championship.
Victor Bids Farewell
It was one of the more emotional scenes to transpire on a tennis court, as Victor Estrella Burgos said goodbye in Santo Domingo. They came in droves for the final act in the career of their legend. For five years, the Santo Domingo Open - the biggest ATP Challenger Tour event in Latin America - has been one big party at Club La Bocha. And for this edition, the home faithful packed the club to support their native son.
On Monday, they danced, sang and cheered in full throat, as the 2017 champion earned the final match victory of his career. And on Tuesday, they danced some more, screamed even louder and cried as Estrella bade farewell with a defeat to Thiago Monteiro. The tears flowed in the stands and on the court, as the 39-year-old sent a backhand into the net and promptly crouched to the green clay.
Heilbronn, Puerto Vallarta, Vancouver Honoured
It was a party from start to finish, as three tournaments received their 2018 Tournament of the Year awards. The NECKARCUP in Heilbronn, Germany, the Puerto Vallarta Open in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and the Odlum Brown VanOpen in Vancouver, Canada were all honoured in front of the home fans.
The trio of tournaments held special ceremonies as the ATP presented them with their respective trophies. They were fitting tributes for the three events voted highest by the players.
'Murray Trophy' Makes Debut
It was a special season for the Murray brothers on the ATP Challenger Tour. In late August, Andy Murray appeared in his first Challenger since 2005. In search of more matches and confidence in his comeback from hip surgery, the former World No. 1 competed in Mallorca, Spain.
One month later, the circuit welcomed the 'Murray Trophy' for the first time as Challenger tennis returned to Glasgow, Scotland. Jamie Murray was instrumental in making the dream a reality, not only competing in the doubles, but also taking a hands-on approach in the organisation of the event. His passion and commitment to growing the game and making the tournament a success was evident throughout the week.
Chardy Leads New Era In Pau
Jeremy Chardy kicked off a new era in his hometown of Pau, France. While many former ATP stars have assumed the role of Challenger tournament director over the years, none are still competing on the pro circuit. That is, until Chardy undertook the task of starting a tournament in his hometown.
The Terega Open celebrated its inaugural edition in February, as the World No. 51 oversaw the development, management and organisation of the event. With years of knowledge and experience from competing on the professional circuit, Chardy was well-equipped to meet the needs of the players, while giving back to his hometown and the surrounding region.
Four Tournaments Celebrate 20th Anniversaries
The Challengers in Barletta, Italy; Tallahassee, USA; Fergana, Uzbekistan and Bratislava, Slovakia all celebrated 20 years on the circuit. The tournaments have demonstrated steadfast commitment to growing the game at the Challenger level since the 1990s.