Best Of 2017: Youth Movement Tops Challenger Storylines
Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPWorldTour.com reflects on the storylines that shaped the ATP Challenger Tour in 2017
Oh, Canada! Teens Capture Headlines
The Canadian conquest of the Emirates ATP Rankings has begun. Two of the nation's native sons - Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime - made great progress in their ascent with breakthrough performances on the ATP Challenger Tour.
While Shapovalov immediately became a household name with his fairytale runs at the Coupe Rogers in Montreal and US Open, he credits his earlier Challenger victories in Drummondville and Gatineau for later giving him the confidence on the big stages. The 18-year-old did not drop a set in claiming his maiden title in Drummondville in March, a result that was the catalyst for his spellbinding 2017 campaign that included an appearance in the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals. Shapovalov enjoyed one of the biggest jumps to the Top 100 this year, soaring 199 spots to No. 51.
The left-hander may have snatched the spotlight, but it was his countryman Auger-Aliassime who etched his name in the record books. The Montreal native became the eighth-youngest winner in Challenger history with his maiden title in Lyon, France, in June. He was the first 16-year-old winner since Bernard Tomic in 2009.
Auger-Aliassime, who vaulted 439 spots to No. 162 in the Emirates ATP Rankings in 2017, was one of just three teenagers to win multiple crowns, along with Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe. At age 17 years and one month, Auger-Aliassime's title in Sevilla, Spain, made him the second-youngest player to do so in Challenger history. Only Richard Gasquet was younger when he lifted his second trophy, in 2003. Futhermore, the Canadian joined Gasquet, Rafael Nadal and Lleyton Hewitt as the youngest players to break into the Top 200 in the past 20 years.
But while Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime found immediate success as teenagers, countryman Filip Peliwo, a former junior star, finally broke through for his maiden title at age 23. Vancouver native Peliwo won as a qualifier in Knoxville in November, five years after ascending to junior No. 1 and reaching the final of all four junior Grand Slams. Success did not come immediately for the Tecnifibre player, but the wait was well worth it, as he finished 2017 at a career-high No. 184.
Junior Stars Make Transition Look Easy
The transition from the junior ranks to the professional level is often fraught with growing pains, as players' developing skills are tested against elite competition. But the youngest of today's #NextGenATP stars are making it look easy. At the end of the 2016 season, Miomir Kecmanovic was the No. 1 junior, with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Yibing Wu and Nicola Kuhn in the Top 10 of the ITF's year-end rankings. One year later, the entire group have tasted victory on the ATP Challenger Tour.
Remarkably, six different players aged 18-and-under lifted trophies in 2017, with Auger-Aliassime, junior champion at last year's US Open, the youngest of the group. Kuhn, 17, became the second-youngest titlist with a title as a qualifier in Braunschweig, Germany, in July. The Spaniard, who was born in Austria and has a German father and Russian mother, is up 548 spots in the Emirates ATP Rankings to No. 241. He is the youngest from Spain to win a title since Rafael Nadal in 2003.
Tsitsipas, Wu and Kecmanovic picked up the momentum in September and October. Tsitsipas became just the third player from Greece to lift an ATP Challenger Tour trophy, in Genova, Italy, while Wu prevailed on home soil in Shanghai just days after claiming the US Open boys' crown. Kecmanovic, meanwhile, became the youngest from Serbia to capture a Challenger crown since Novak Djokovic in 2005, winning in Suzhou, China.
Tsitsipas cracked the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings at No. 91, while Wu soared 621 spots to No. 305 and Kecmanovic is up 599 spots to No. 207.
Youngest Winners In 2017
|Felix Auger-Aliassime||16 yrs, 10 mos.||Lyon, FRA|
|Felix Auger-Aliassime||17 yrs, 1 mo.||Seville, ESP|
|Nicola Kuhn||17 yrs, 3 mos.||Braunschweig, GER|
|Wu Yibing||17 yrs, 11 mos.||Shanghai, CHN|
|Denis Shapovalov||17 yrs, 11 mos.||Drummondville, CAN|
|Miomir Kecmanovic||18 yrs, 1 mo.||Suzhou, CHN|
|Denis Shapovalov||18 yrs, 3 mos.||Gatineau, CAN|
Challenger Stars Translate Success To ATP World Tour
The ATP Challenger Tour is the launching pad for the stars of tomorrow of the ATP World Tour. Regardless of age, players are plotting their ascent at the Challenger level and the 2017 season saw a bevy of success stories.
Few journeys were as impressive than that of Serbia's Filip Krajinovic, who won a tour-leading five titles before storming to his first ATP World Tour final as a qualifier at the Rolex Paris Masters. It was just his second tour-level event of the year. Krajinovic overcame wrist and shoulder injuries to rise 203 spots in the Emirates ATP Rankings to a year-end position of No. 34.
"It was my goal to play Challengers this year and get some confidence for the ATP World Tour," said Krajinovic. "I didn't expect to win five titles from five finals, but I believe that if I didn't do well in the Challengers, I would not have the confidence here in Paris. I'm proud and happy for that."
Also jumping more than 200 spots to the Top 100 was Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who won a pair of titles before storming to the second round of the US Open as a qualifier, in his comeback from multiple surgeries. He also reached his first ATP World Tour quarter-final in five years on the clay of Geneva.
Ryan Harrison, Yuichi Sugita and Damir Dzumhur all went one step further in hoisting trophies on both the ATP Challenger Tour and the ATP World Tour, en route to the Top 50. Harrison became the first player to win a Challenger title and then a tour-level crown in consecutive tournaments since David Goffin in 2014.
Americans on the Ascent
Serbia and the United States both boasted a tour-leading 12 titlists this year, and most impressively, nine different champions emerged from the American contingent. From #NextGenATP stars Frances Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh, Stefan Kozlov and Noah Rubin, to veterans Tennys Sandgren, Tim Smyczek and Ryan Harrison, and first-time winners Kevin King and Mackenzie McDonald, the U.S. was well represented in 2017.
Tiafoe went back-to-back on the green clay of Sarasota and red dirt of Aix-en-Provence, while Sandgren made his Top 100 debut soon after winning the title in Savannah. Also, Smyczek completed a 12-1 finish to the season with trophies in Charlottesville and Champaign, securing a main draw wild card into the 2018 Australian Open.
The German Generation
Alexander Zverev may be the talk of German tennis these days, but the 20-year-old is part of a bigger tennis movement in his homeland. Germany celebrated 10 winners on the ATP Challenger Tour this year, with Stebe (see above) joined by Maximilian Marterer as three-time champions. Marterer, aged 22, broke into the Top 100 with a 21-3 Challenger run to conclude the season, claiming titles on clay, hard and carpet.
Yannick Hanfmann and Oscar Otte, meanwhile, completed remarkable runs to the Top 150, having posted a combined 3-16 record in Challenger main draws entering the year. Hanfmann won his maiden title on home soil in Ismaning and was runner-up at the ATP World Tour 250 in Gstaad, while Otte lifted his first trophy in Lisbon.
Other Germans celebrating victories were Peter Gojowczyk, champion in Happy Valley, Australia, and at the ATP World Tour stop in Metz, and Matthias Bachinger, who returned to the winners' circle for the first time in six years after undergoing knee surgery.
Jason Kubler: Comeback Story Of The Year
Even the best Hollywood screenwriters couldn't have scripted a week like Jason Kubler had in Traralgon, Australia. After sitting on the sidelines for more than a year due to injury, Kubler claimed the title on home soil in what was his first ATP Challenger Tour event since July 2015. It was a fairytale week for the Aussie, who came through qualifying to prevail over countryman Alex Bolt in the final, saving one match point after two hours and 28 minutes.
Kubler's victory is nothing short of astounding considering it came on hard courts. The 24-year-old, a former junior No. 1, has endured a career of knee issues that have allowed him to compete only on clay, preferring the softer conditions. In fact, he had never played a Challenger match on hard entering the week. Kubler upset third seed Taro Daniel and second seed Matthew Ebden - both in straight sets - en route to the championship. He climbed 726 spots to No. 337 in the year-end Emirates ATP Rankings.
Aussie comebacks became a theme on the ATP Challenger Tour this year, with Matthew Ebden and John Millman also returning from injury. Ebden was the biggest mover to the Top 100, rising 619 spots to No. 76 in his return from knee surgery. He won late season titles in both Canberra, Australia and Toyota, Japan. Millman lifted the trophy in Hua Hin, Thailand, in his return after undergoing groin surgery, rising to a year-end position of No. 128 in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
All Eyes On Braunschweig For Inaugural Global Challenger Workshop
The ATP Challenger Tour turned its attention to Braunschweig, Germany, in July as the ATP welcomed representatives from tournaments and national federations throughout the world for the inaugural Global Challenger Workshop. With the goal of making the burgeoning circuit even stronger, the forum fostered an open dialogue between tournaments and ATP staff.
The two days of collaboration and integration of ideas also included the awards presentation for 2016 ATP Challenger Tournaments of the Year. The Sparkassen Open in Braunschweig and Pekao Szczecin Open in Szczecin, Poland, were acknowledged for their passion and commitment to growing the game at the Challenger level.
With singles titlists from 41 different countries, including a first-time winner from El Salvador (Marcelo Arevalo), players from all corners of the globe tasted success on the ATP Challenger Tour. But the global game wasn't limited to the players. The 2017 season featured a total of 155 tournaments in 40 countries and territories, including the return of Challenger tennis to Portugal. After a four-year absence, the European nation hosted the Lisboa Belem Open in the capital of Lisbon. With the goal of bringing exposure to the game in various locales throughout the world, the circuit continues to expand and grow.
Tournaments Celebrate Milestones
Four of the longest-running tournaments on the ATP Challenger Tour celebrated milestone editions this year. The hard-court events in Aptos, U.S.A., and Istanbul, Turkey, welcomed players and fans for the 30th time, while the clay-court tournaments in Szczecin, Poland, and Scheveningen, Netherlands, enjoyed 25th anniversaries. With world-class player fields, vibrant atmospheres and packed crowds, the events continue to set the standard on the Challenger circuit.
Latin America in Focus
Marcelo Arevalo's maiden title in Bogota put tennis in El Salvador on the map, and the trend continued across Latin America in 2017. Victor Estrella Burgos prevailed on home soil in front of legions of passionate fans in Santo Domingo, and it was a party all week in Montevideo as Pablo Cuevas triumphed at the Uruguay Open. Meanwhile, 22-year-old Nicolas Jarry gave the home fans in Santiago, Chile, plenty to cheer for as their rising star lifted the trophy in November. Cuevas and Jarry's victories were an integral part of the eight-week South American swing that capped the season, weaving through seven different countries. With tournaments in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay, the swing brings exposure to tennis in the sports-crazed region.
Legends Give Back
Each and every ATP World Tour star has gotten his start on the ATP Challenger Tour. It is a right of passage for all players, and many legends of the game returned to their roots this year, visiting various tournaments throughout the world. In France, Sebastien Grosjean and Nicolas Escude served as tournament ambassadors at the Open d'Orleans, while Guy Forget and Arnaud Clement attended the Open Sopra Steria de Lyon. At the inaugural event in nearby Sophia Antipolis, Andy Murray presented countryman Aljaz Bedene with the singles trophy.
Outside of Europe, former World No. 2 Petr Korda played an exhibition at the Sarasota Open, while his 17-year-old son Sebastian Korda competed in his first Challenger main draw. The junior star is looking to carve his own path as he makes the transition to the pros. In South America, Chilean legends Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu took in the action in Santiago. Meanwhile, in both Pune and Bangalore, India, Rohan Bopanna paid a visit to the two Challenger events in his home country.