Challenger Stars Reaping Rewards At US Open
They say a picture can speak a thousand words, but if you ask Steve Darcis, he would illustrate it with one. "Unbelievable" the emotional Belgian said after marching through qualifying at the US Open on Friday.
"Unbelievable" describes the 32-year-old's three-set marathon victory over Enrique Lopez-Perez, saving a match point in a 10-8 deciding tie-break. It represents his dominance of #NextGen stars Tommy Paul and Duckhee Lee in the opening rounds, refusing to drop a set en route to qualifying in New York for the second time in three years. But more importantly, it aptly chronicles his journey back to the Grand Slam stage - and near-return to the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings - after shoulder and knee injuries sidelined the former World No. 44.
"You take every win when you're out for six or seven months," he added. Having posted a 21-4 record on the ATP Challenger Tour this year, the 5'10" right-hander has carried a strong run of form into the US Open. Titles in Lyon, France and earlier this month in Trnava, Slovakia, have vaulted him to World No. 108.
While Darcis will be making his eighth main draw appearance in New York, other qualifiers have surged into the field of 128 for the first time following breakthrough performances on the Challenger circuit this year.
"This is why you play tennis," #NextGen star Karen Khachanov told ATPWorldTour.com. Inside the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings following a title run at the Challenger in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and plotting his ascent towards stardom, the 20-year-old qualified for his first Grand Slam in his sixth attempt, defeating Noah Rubin.
"You want to play in these big events. It feels great to me to be in the main draw. I'm just very happy. Even though I didn't play my best tennis, I passed through qualies, dealt with my emotions and I'm happy to be in my first Grand Slam. I know Noah pretty well. He's a fighter. He's the same age as me and he beat me one time in juniors, so it means a lot to get through."
Indeed, Khachanov has already become a household name on the ATP World Tour, but the quartet of Ilya Ivashka, Jan Satral, Marton Fucsovics and Saketh Myneni are reveling in their first moments in the spotlight and first experiences on one of the biggest stages in the game.
"I'm very happy that I qualified," said 22-year-old Ilya Ivashka, who is the third player representing Belarus to reach the main draw of a Grand Slam, joining Max Mirnyi and Vladimir Voltchkov. "I played very good tennis, which is even more important. It's amazing because Voltchkov is coaching me now and I know Max very well. They are helping me a lot."
With his Emirates ATP Ranking vascillating near the Top 300, Ivashka owned a 15-15 record on the ATP Challenger Tour when he stepped on the clay of Recanati, Italy, in mid-July, and battled to his first career final. Despite falling to Illya Marchenko, he believes it was the week that changed everything.
"It gave me all the confidence, because I beat a Top 100 player there," Ivashka said of his comeback victory over top seed Evgeny Donskoy in the semis. "I played great tennis. Three of the matches went three sets. It gave me the belief that I can beat the good players and it helped a lot. I want to win every match that I play."
One of 20 first-time winners on the Challenger circuit this year, Ivashka has since risen to a career-high World No. 181 and is slated to open his tour-level career against Winston-Salem Open champion Pablo Carreno Busta.
All it takes is one win. One win can change the trajectory of a season and often a career. For some, the springboard to the bigger stages and bright lights is swift and immediate. Just ask Jan Satral. It was the first round of €42,500 event in Marburg, Germany in late June. The 26-year-old Czech was sitting at No. 272 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and in search of confidence as his 2016 campaign reached the halfway mark. One win over former Top 100 stalwart Tobias Kamke changed everything.
"It did a lot for me,” Satral told ATPWorldTour.com. “I wasn't in good shape at the beginning of the season and then I won a round of qualifying at Wimbledon and went to Marburg as a last-minute decision. When I beat Tobias Kamke in the first round, it gave me the most confidence to beat the good players. After that, every match I played pretty well and I started to feel good again.”
Satral would storm to his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Marburg, dropping a combined 10 games in the semis and final. But the Czech wasn’t done. Victory on the German clay propelled him to qualify for his first ATP World Tour main draw in Hamburg just one week later, stealing a set from former World No. 9 Nicolas Almagro in the first round. Satral has since carried the momentum into the Big Apple, where he cruised to his first Grand Slam qualification without dropping a set. He awaits fellow major newcomer and American collegiate star Mackenzie McDonald, with a potential date with 10th seed Gael Monfils on the line.
“Kamke was the most important win of the year and after that I played great. I'm happy that I'm staying like this.”
Ivashka, Satral, Fucsovics and Myneni might be Grand Slam debutants, but they are certainly no strangers to high-pressure moments. Ivashka, Satral and Fucsovics each reached an ATP Challenger Tour final while residing outside the Top 200 this year, while Myneni finished runner-up on home soil in New Delhi as World No. 166. Dedicated and focused on taking their breakout campaigns to an even higher level at the US Open, the foursome have earned the opportunity.
"In all my dreams, this is one of best thing that's ever happened to me in tennis," said Myneni, who lives in nearby Greenwich, Connecticut. "Qualifying is great, but you still have to stay focused. If it's the Challenger Tour or tour-level events, it's the same goal in keeping your ranking up there and always improving. This is my home Grand Slam, being one hour away, and it's especially nice having the support of my family being here."
In addition, for India's Myneni, Belarus's Ivashka and Hungary's Fucsovics, qualifying for a first Grand Slam main draw is not only an individual achievement, rather a source of great national pride.
"I hope it helps," added Myneni, who is just the second player from India to compete in singles at the US Open since 2002, along with Somdev Devvarman. "Tennis has improved a lot in the last 10 years. I think there is a long way to go for the sport to develop further and get better and better, but it's a good thing for them to see a guy from India competing in such a big stage."
Fucsovics is part of an even more exclusive club, as just the fifth Hungarian man to appear in a Grand Slam main draw. It was his 15th attempt in total.
"I'm very happy to be on the list, but hopefully I can win some matches in the main draw as well and play even better the rest of the year,” said Fucsovics, who opens with a stern test against a resurgent Nicolas Almagro. “I changed my coach recently to Attila Savolt and he has helped me a lot to get to this level.”
The 24-year-old is on course to surpass his career-high World No. 135 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, having streaked to the final at the prestigious ATP Challenger Tour event in Prostejov, Czech Republic, in early June. It was the first final in nearly two years for the former Wimbledon junior champ.
“I reached the final in Prostejov as a qualifier, which is one of the biggest Challengers. It was a big result after a long time, since I had won two Challengers many years ago. It gave me a lot of confidence and for sure led to this result.”
Fucsovics, Ivashka, Khachanov, Myneni and Satral aren’t the only players to qualify at a Grand Slam for the first time. In fact, there are eight in total, with 22-year-old Christian Harrison, 23-year-old Brazilian Guilherme Clezar and 26-year-old Italian Alessandro Giannessi also making their debuts after prevailing on Friday. Clezar, runner-up at the 2014 ATP Challenger Tour Finals, qualified in his 14th attempt.