Big Names And Coastal Charm: Aptos Celebrates 30 Years
Paul Kepler knows better than most the balancing act of awarding wild cards into one of the most sought after spots in an ATP Challenger Tour draw. This week, the Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos, California, celebrates its 30th anniversary and Kepler has been at the helm as tournament director for 27 of those.
With an honour roll of past champions including Marcos Baghdatis (2014), Steve Johnson (2012), Andy Murray (2005), Daniel Nestor (1995) and Patrick Rafter (1993), it is easy to see why this event has developed such an enviable reputation. As luck would have it, even a former No. 2 in the Emirates ATP Rankings has been known to request a last-minute place in the draw.
“We’ve had a number of good wild cards over the years. Probably one of my best stories was a couple of years ago when we were holding off on giving a second wild card after giving our first one to Taylor Fritz,” Kepler said. “He’d just wound up winning on the hard-courts at Kalamazoo and was our top NextGen player at that point in time.”
A queue of #NextGenATP players is not unusual for an ATP Challenger Tour event, such as Aptos. What Kepler did not expect was the calibre of player about to reach out to him.
“Lo and behold, a week before the tournament, Tommy Haas called us,” he said. “He was thinking about coming back and playing some more. Not only did he ask for a wild card but asked about some private housing so we decided to not only give him a wild card but have him house with us. He came up and won his first match, lost his second on the Thursday night, but it was a fun three or four days.”
The event is held at the Seascape Sports Club in Aptos, California, right on to the Pacific Ocean and just steps from the beach. It is one of the more beautiful and scenic locations on the ATP Challenger Tour. Founded in 1988, it is the sixth longest-running Challenger event and second-oldest in the U.S., behind only Winnetka, Illinois.
Last year, Daniel Evans lived up to top seed status by defeating qualifier and fellow Brit Cameron Norrie in the championship match, 6-3, 6-4. In 2015, it was top seed John Millman, of Australia who took the honours and in the process broke a 30-year drought.
“All that week I was the top seed and people were telling me there was some curse about the top seed never winning the tournament in the Aptos Challenger so it’s probably the happiest I was to break that curse,” Millman said.
Leave it to a former champion to explain what lures the players to the tournament on the Californian coast. “I think just the neighbourhood where it’s at,” Millman said. “Aptos is a beautiful place by the sea, reminds me a bit of back home in Australia. I guess if I can’t play at home, playing in Aptos by the sea in conditions kind of like Australia is nice.”
This week, NextGenATP American Taylor Fritz was again a recipient of a wild card. He was one of six NextGenATP players to start in the main draw alongside compatriot Noah Rubin, Frenchman Quentin Halys, Norwegian Casper Ruud, Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik and Australian Akira Santillan.
Fritz is due to face fellow American and sixth seed Tennys Sandgren for a semi-final berth, while Millman’s countrymen Sam Groth and NextGenATP player Akira Santillan will square off in another quarter-final. Groth earlier took down eighth-seeded American Bjorn Fratangelo, while Santillan upset countryman, No. 2 seed Jordan Thompson in the first round. Top seed Malek Jaziri also fell at the first hurdle, bowing to qualifier Austin Krajicek.
"My favourite part of the tournament is the location, with really nice weather every day," added 2016 runner-up Norrie. "The club is great and the people are nice and generous. It's nice that the members come out for the first few rounds. It makes it feel like a proper tournament. Great tournament, really well run and a pleasure to be back in Aptos."