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Sarasota: The Challenger Standard

Sarasota Open© Longboat Key Club and ResortThe Longboat Key Club and Resort hosted the Sarasota Challenger for the sixth year.

Five years ago, a 22-year-old Brit named James Ward entered The Tennis Gardens at The Resort at Longboat Key Club without many expectations for the week ahead. 

Ward was sitting at No. 271 in the Emirates ATP Rankings at the time, embarking on his first full season on the ATP Challenger Tour. The London native had previously never reached the semi-finals of a Challenger event, but in this week he would reel off seven wins in eight days as a qualifier, christening the inaugural Sarasota Open with his maiden title. 

With a 4.5-million dollar complex in place, which includes 20 green Har-Tru clay courts, a cafe and lounge, fully-equipped pro shop and all the amenities of a world-class tennis facility on the Challenger circuit, it’s no surprise that Ward returns every year.

“I won the tournament a few years ago,” Ward is quick to point out. “They try hard with the organisation. I think it’s one of the better Challengers for sure.”

At the Sarasota Open, you won’t find players jockeying for position in the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings, nor will you come across competitors fighting for a huge pay day and the fame and fortune of a tour-level crown.

But that’s exactly what makes the tournament even more captivating and endearing to the fans and an enticing destination for the players.

“I like the location and how it's well organised and how well the tournament takes care of the players,” said recent Kolkata champion Ilija Bozoljac. “The fans are great too.”

What you will find are players battling to earn their stay on the ATP Challenger Tour and those willing to leave every last ounce of energy and passion on the court, regardless of the trials and tribulations they may encounter.

Every tournament on the Challenger circuit has its own charm, its unique allure. At the Longboat Key Tennis Gardens, where the sun glances off the adjacent lake, illuminating the Centre Court clay and providing a picturesque tennis backdrop, it is truly a slice of heaven for those Challenger warriors. Nestled amongst marinas and just steps from the Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the venue is an ideal location.

“The courts are great, obviously the weather is great,” said Irish No. 1 James McGee. “I think everything is well-run. The food is good here. It’s nice we get golf carts going to the players' lounge. It’s got a really nice feel to it. The Centre Court is really nice. 

“It’s my first green clay Challenger and I’m really enjoying it. It’s beautiful to be surrounded by the golf course and trees and water. I couldn’t have asked for a better place.”

Recent Morelos Open champion Gerald Melzer, younger brother of former World No. 8 Jurgen Melzer, agrees. “I think it’s really well organised. They have enough practice courts and a really nice Centre Court. It gets people to come and watch every day, so it’s really fun to play. This time of the year in Europe we just started to play outdoors, so it’s nice and warm here.”

The Centre Court that McGee and Melzer refer to seats up to 3,500 fans and doubles as a concert venue prior to the evening sessions, with live music in the stadium before each featured night match.

The tournament also boasts the Paragon Art Festival during the weekend, where art from around the world is displayed and sold. As tournament director Tony Driscoll explains, every year they try to add something new to the mix.

“We try to do something a little better and different every year,” said Driscoll. “Sarasota has a big tennis community, so they’re very supportive of the tournament. We like to think of ourselves as the best Challenger in the world as far as what we’re trying to accomplish at this level. The players love to come. They know a lot of people in this area as well.”

The Sarasota Open has recently attracted the best in American tennis as the first leg of the three-tournament Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge, which awards a wild card into the Roland Garros main draw to the player who accumulates the most Emirates ATP Rankings points. Last year, Sarasota champion Alex Kuznetsov earned the wild card nearly eight years after a broken femur suffered in a car accident left his career in jeopardy.

“It helps attract the top Americans, which is nice,” Driscoll added. “It’s an added benefit for sure.”

In 2014, with tournament mainstay and recent International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Nick Bollettieri in attendance, along with former WTA Tour World No. 3 Mary Pierce and top American John Isner, this year’s edition was not devoid of celebrity star power. 

With a projected tournament attendance of over 35,000 spectators, the fan-friendly event is fast becoming a favourite destination of the players, especially for 2014 champion Nick Kyrgios.

“I've never been to Sarasota before but it's one of my favourite places,” the Australian young gun said prior to the tournament. “It's really quite nice here.”

Kyrgios defeated Filip Krajinovic 7-6(10), 6-4 in Sunday’s final for his second ATP Challenger Tour title and first on clay in any professional level.

With current and former Top 20 players James Blake, Kei Nishikori and Sam Querrey, all former Sarasota Open champions, using the tournament as a launching pad to success on the ATP World Tour, Kyrgios hopes to follow in their footsteps.

"It’s a bit of a weight on my shoulder but it’s pretty exciting and motivating."

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