Challenger Finals Preview: Munoz-de la Nava Defying The Odds At 33
A breeding ground for ATP stardom, the rising stars of men’s tennis lay the foundation for their budding careers on the ATP Challenger Tour.
The circuit provides a platform for players to develop their talents, but not all careers are created equal. Some rise to the top faster and slower than others and while there is no blueprint to success, Daniel Munoz-de la Nava is doing his best to defy the odds at the ripe age of 33.
In 2014, the Challenger circuit was set ablaze by a 33-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos, who capped his memorable breakthrough season with a trip to the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, before sending shockwaves through the ATP World Tour as the oldest first-time champion in Quito, earlier this year. Munoz-de la Nava is looking to follow a similar path.
Inspired by his thriving group of countrymen over the age of 30, including David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez and Tommy Robredo, the Spaniard torched the competition in 2015, compiling 44 wins in 60 matches. His three titles from six finals, on the clay of Napoli, Moscow and Meknes, saw him soar to a career-high World No. 82 in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
“This year I am playing with more confidence,” Munoz-de la Nava told ATPWorldTour.com from his home in Madrid. “After two years of working really hard with my team, I’ve been able to play well and be happy on the court. I’ve been working with my physio on treating my knee and my trainer has helped me a lot. I’ve had so many injuries the past few years. As they say, it’s really important to play with two legs, to be able to run and just stay healthy. This is the big difference for me.
“It was really important for me to win the first Challenger in Napoli. It was a big one and it helped me make a big jump in the rankings. Before the victory there, I had played seven or eight finals in my career and only won one. It came so fast and the final was 6-2, 6-1 (d. Donati). The start of my season wasn’t so good. I lost many close matches in the first two or three months. After this tournament, everything changed. And of course I cannot forget the match at the tournament in Manerbio, Italy, when I became Top 100. I will never forget this match.”
When the Madrid native entered the Top 100 for the first time in August, he claimed a slice of history, as the 14th-oldest player to crack the century mark for the first time. He was the first 33 year old to do so since Estrella Burgos last year.
“It’s so special and so important for me (to enter the Top 100). For so many years, it was more than a goal. I was completely blocked when I was playing and I couldn’t focus my energy. It became a big point of pressure for me. After this year, I’ve made it and I feel freer and much better. It was really hard.”
Munoz-de la Nava turned pro in 1999, but his progress was hampered by a car accident soon after receiving his driver’s license, which resulted in persistent knee troubles. For years, the Spaniard’s position in the Emirates ATP Rankings vacillated around the Top 200. His 2011 campaign finished with promise and a year-end spot of No. 140, but setbacks would send it in the wrong direction. No. 171 would follow in 2012, No. 194 in 2013 and No. 206 in 2014. Finally healthy, he is now realising his potential 15 years later.
With two daughters at home – Noa and Paula – Munoz-de la Nava has new sources of inspiration that have driven him to new heights in 2015.
“Noa, my oldest (age 3), has seen me play many times. It’s been a really good inspiration for me and has motivated me. Every time they come with me I play well and I feel better. It’s very important.”
A doubles finalist at the ATP World Tour 500 event in Hamburg in 2012, with Rogerio Dutra Silva, Munoz-de la Nava has also reached a pair of tour-level singles quarter-finals in Estoril earlier that year and in Delray Beach in 2013. The biggest win of his career came in his hometown Mutua Madrid Open, upsetting then World No. 22 Sam Querrey from a set down as a qualifier in 2010. The Spaniard learned to play at age five when his father introduced him to the game. After competing in a national tournament in Madrid, he started practising there on a full-time basis and later turned pro at 17.
“Francisco Clavet has always been my idol. I practised with him a lot when I was 20-23 and he was at the end of his career. He inspired me because he was always focused, professional and working hard. I have to work hard at every point and he really taught me a lot about how to be a professional player.”
Munoz-de la Nava is looking to cap his breakthrough campaign with a strong statement at the ATP Challenger Tour Finals as he sets the tone for the 2016 season. Despite being the second-highest ranked player in the tournament field, he is not taking anything for granted and is grateful to have qualified.
“Since the middle of the year, I decided to be focused on Sao Paulo and I made it. It’s going to be on indoor clay with altitude. More similar altitude to Madrid, so for me it is not going to change a lot, but the balls are going to be fast. Let’s say for guys like Lorenzi, he’s especially good in altitude. I played Albot in a final in Moscow, Dustov likes faster courts and Cecchinato was pretty solid all year, so all the matches are going to be tough. The conditions will be really important. Let’s see how fast the court is. I’ve been practising hard. I haven’t played tournaments this month to rest and be ready to play here.
“2016 is going to be interesting but it will be tough. In the Challengers I was almost always seeded and it’s different now. I can play against Top 10, Top 20, Top 30 players. It’s going to be an exciting year and I will try to be as prepared as I can. I will need a little bit of luck with the draws and I’ll try to stay in the Top 100.”