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THE CHALLENGER EFFECT


Carlos Alcaraz (left) celebrates his first ATP Challenger Tour title in 2020 with coach and former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. Credit: Citta di Trieste Challenger


Opportunity breeds success. A cliché. But cliché’s often hold a lot of truth.


In Australia, we are privileged that one of the most prestigious tournaments on the calendar is in our backyard. Preceding this, a handful of other professional events are scattered around the country, thereby, giving most of our population, high exposure to top level tennis.


However, the next tier of tournaments, the Challenger circuit, has never received as much love and attention as it should’ve. Is it time to turn our attention to quality Challenger tournaments? High level opportunities for players to play closer to home, and more opportunity for local tennis lovers to get out and enjoy top level tennis.


That opportunity, for both player and spectator, has the potential to breathe new life into tennis in this country. We have the Australian Open, and in some way, because we are so over-exposed to the best in the world, we, as a country, assume we should always have players challenging to win the majors. Yet without a solid base of players to draw on, to push each other, to work with each other, it’s a tough slog.


Contemplate some of the most successful eras of tennis…Australia in the 60’s and 70’s, the Swede’s and Americans in the 80’s and 90’s, the Spanish in the 2000’s. They could all count on multiple top line players to push, train with, and motivate each other. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Federer and Switzerland, who haven’t quite been able to ignite a new generation of players. But generally speaking, if you want success, you require a wide base of talent upon which to draw on.


So if opportunity breeds success, and there are only so many ATP tour tournaments on the calendar – and a lot of them are never going to change – how does a country give their players and spectators, the opportunities? By investing in the next tier. Challenger tournaments.


Just this week, the ATP has announced substantial upgrades to the Challenger tour, making them even more attractive for players and spectators alike. These include:


- Prizemoney increase of 60%, including early rounds, allowing for a more sustainable path for more players to ply their trade on the tour.

- A streamlined system of categorizing the events. We will now have only 4 tiers of Challenger events:

- Challenger 50

- Challenger 75

- Challenger 100

- Challenger 125


Plus a very welcome addition of 3 new Premium Challenger 175 tournaments to be scheduled during the second week of Indian Wells, Rome, and Madrid. (I would probably like to see one of those in the second week of the Australian Open, as another opportunity for players who have travelled a long distance).


- An increase in the number of events, from 183, up to 195, including an anticipated 170% increase in Challenger 100 and 125 tournaments, giving players more opportunity to earn points towards pushing onto the main ATP tour.


ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said:

“The Challenger Tour is the launch-pad of men’s professional tennis…..The new plan increases earnings potential for players and improves the balance of tournament categories, surfaces and regions. It also puts a renewed focus on raising tournament standards. This is also just the beginning. Our team is committed to delivering further enhancements in the coming months and years.”


Richard Glover, Vice President of the ATP Challenger Tour, commented further:

“The health of the ATP Challenger Tour is critical for the future of our sport, and our in-depth review revealed significant opportunities to strengthen this pathway. Whilst we are taking a long-term approach to growing the Challenger Tour, these changes will provide an immediate boost from 2023 onwards. We look forward to executing these reforms next season and building on this progress in the near future. There is more to come, so watch this space.”


These comments are exactly what we want to hear, and why it is so important for countries to put their hand up to stage as many of these events as possible. So let’s take a look at how countries already holding Challenger tournaments, are faring on the world stage.


The cut-off ranking to enter one of these events, is, very roughly, 300. I wanted to go through the Challenger tour calendar, and note which countries are hosting the most events, and whether it correlates at all to the number of players camped inside the top 300. The table below displays the leading countries.


Country

Players in top 300

Number of Challenger events


Italy 28 28

USA 26 21

France 25 18

Argentina 25 6

Spain 16 10

Australia 14 6

Germany 14 6

Great Britain 10 3

Russia* 9 0*

Switzerland 8 3

Serbia 8 0

Czech 7 6

Portugal 5 7

Chile 5 5

Mexico 0 5


Italy ‘only’ hold 3 top level ATP events, yet they are far and away, the biggest stager of Challenger events, with 28. Interestingly, this has translated to having 28 players in the top 300, which is the most of all countries.


Does holding a Challenger event almost every week of the year, assist with nurturing those players? It would seem to. One thing is certain, the depth of Italian tennis is phenomenal, and they barely have to leave the country to collect points.


USA hold the second most Challenger events, and also has the second most players inside the top 300. Of course, they hold a large amount of ATP events, and have a wonderfully strong college system. All these things working together in unison, mean opportunities abound to watch, and compete at a high level across the country.


France holds the third most Challenger events, and a pattern is emerging when you see they also hold down position number three (equal with Argentina) for players in that top 300 bracket. More opportunities. More success.


What about the outliers? Are there countries who are playing well above, or below the expected?


Argentina jumps out at us with 25 players in the top 300, only behind countries we’ve already discussed. For the abundance of talent they have coming through, there are limited tournament opportunities at home for them. Just 2 ATP tournaments. However, there are now 6 Challenger’s, a significant increase from 2 back in 2015, when they had 16 players in the top 300. I expect these numbers to build in the coming years, hopefully extending across the South American continent.


A couple of other countries bucking the trend, are Serbia, who interestingly enough, holds no Challenger events, yet have 8 players inside 300 (the Djokovic effect possibly?), and Russia, who, for obvious reasons, didn’t hold many tournaments this year, but in fact, rarely hold Challenger’s in their own backyard.


There are countries though, who are over-represented with tournaments, when put side by side against the output of professional talent, such as Mexico, and China. The central American country holds 5 Challengers, a couple of ATP events, and more than a dozen ITF’s, yet sees no man breaking into the top 300.


With China basically off the calendar for the last couple of years, I am referencing pre-Covid stats here, but in a normal year, they will host a dozen or so Challengers, and 4 ATP events, yet are only represented in the top 300 by 3 athletes.


Portugal and Czech Republic also probably underperform when considering the amount of Challengers held, yet with relatively small populations, it’s more plausible.


When we take a look in our own backyard, Australia holds 6 Challenger events, and currently we have as many as 14 players in the top echelon. Interestingly, those stats match up exactly the same as Germany, but quite a way off the top tennis playing nations. One can’t help but wonder if there were a couple more events here, maybe a couple in New Zealand, Indonesia, etc, whether we would be able to build a larger base of talent.

We know how expensive it can be for Australian players to have to base themselves in Europe or North America for months at a time. There are players who just can’t do that, meaning they possibly miss out on opportunities. Of course, the same goes for other countries in Asia and Africa. Hopefully the changes and upgrades coming to the tour, give these regions the boost needed.


One footnote to mention, is that the number of ITF tournaments doesn’t seem to make a difference, when not supported by the higher tier events. For example, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey hold over 110 ITF’s between them, but only 3 Challengers. Turkey has 3 players inside the 300 mark, while Egypt and Tunisia don’t trouble the scorers, with zero.


Of the top ten countries staging the highest number of Challenger events, 7 of them fill the top 7 spots when it comes to players inside the top 300, clearly displaying, that for those countries who are genuinely trying to lift the profile of the sport, and build a really solid base, it is seemingly worthwhile investing in quality Challenger events.


It’s no surprise to discover that the traditional tennis countries have more events, thus more opportunities, and therefore, more success at the top level.


The flipside of that would suggest that if a region doesn’t have a chance to view top level tennis, nor play it in their own backyard, they are less likely to see achieve growth in the sport.

But of course, there are so many other factors that come into it. Traditional tennis playing nations, are generally far wealthier than a lot of others, meaning they have the infrastructure in place to support tennis at all levels.


Governments and tennis bodies in developing countries are often happy to hold professional events, yet seemingly not filter that money down to grassroots. There are also issues where tennis is an expensive sport in a lot of regions, and only the upper class can attend or play, meaning the game is still lost to the majority of the population.


Consequently, while holding Challenger events is no golden ticket to success, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that, if done right, it might just give the country a decent boost up the rankings.

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