The ATP Challenger event in Canberra (2019).
We’re lucky in Australia. We are entrusted with staging one of the four biggest tennis tournaments in our sport. And we do it brilliantly. Year after year, Melbourne Park becomes bigger and better, as we welcome players and fans to our shores.
In the weeks leading up to the Australian Open, there’s a plethora of top-level matches all around the country. The tennis footprint is far reaching during January.
But once February hits, what becomes of elite tennis on our shores? The answer is… very little. Most of us understand that tennis follows the sun. This means as soon as our summer is winding down, somewhere else in the world, it’s starting to wind up.
To my eye, we have a cultural issue here in Australia when it comes to tennis, and to be fair, it’s probably relevant across a range of sports.
We focus so intensely on the absolute pinnacle of tennis; in this case, the Australian Open in January.
Then, very visibly, we invest a lot of time and effort, into demonstrating just how much time and effort, we put into grassroots, and junior tennis. While this is obviously essential for the growth of the sport, it does feel as though there is a group of athletes somewhere in the middle, that has been neglected…the players in the ‘second-tier’ of the sport. Those players not quite at regular Grand Slam level. The Challenger Tour.
But why should we care about this level?
Have you ever been to the qualifying week of a Slam tournament? Impressed by the tennis? You should be. You’re watching the exact same group of players who are competing week in week out on the Challenger Tour.
In fact, if you’re in any doubt of the quality, here’s just a small sample of players who’ve won Challengers in the last few years:
Hubert Hurkacz in Canberra (2019).
Yet here, we give these tournaments zero respect.
In 2019 (pre-Covid) Australia held six Challengers and eight ITF tournaments (third-tier events).
Compare that with other Grand Slam nations such as France (14 and 23), and the US (25 and 42), and you can see the opportunities for Aussie players to play in their home country are limited. Clearly, there is a population and geographical issue here, but it remains a stark contrast.
With such little opportunity here, Aussies are forced to base themselves overseas for long stretches of the year. While this is nothing new, surely it would be in the interest of Australian tennis, and the wider Oceania/Sth East Asia, if there were more Challenger tournaments down under. This would allow local players to be close to home for a few more weeks of the year, save a few dollars, but just as importantly, attract world-class tennis players to our courts, at multiple times of the year.
January, leading into February perhaps, is an obvious time. But I feel as though we could make a push to hold four or five more quality events around October/November. Football seasons have ended, the weather is getting warmer, and Aussie players could come home a little earlier. International players may be wanting to escape the cold weather of the northern hemisphere and spend a few weeks here.
We could even share a couple of events with New Zealand, who currently don't have any ATP events or Challengers since the Auckland tournament's COVID-induced hiatus - which is due to return in 2023.
However, if I was running the Challenger tour, would I be rushing to stage more events here? Not a chance.
Based on 2019, we have six events. Hands up if you’ve attended any… Or, worse, even knew they were being held?
I know there’s very few hands raised right now, and that is the big problem. At a guess, I’d say there’d barely be a few hundred spectators through the gates for the whole week. We need to drastically improve our current events, before we lift our quota.
Challengers in Europe, North America and even South America are generally well organised, are usually well patronised, and give the Challenger tour and its players, the absolute respect they deserve for being ranked in the top few hundred in the world. (If you get a chance, have a look at photos from events in Genova, Braunschweig, Vancouver, Santiago, as an example).
The ATP Challenger in Braunschweig from above.
Entertainment at the ATP Challenger in Braunschweig.
A very good point was made to me by a current player at this level. He commented, ‘there is very little respect given to guys ranked outside the top 100 in Australia. Just listen to the commentary during January, when words such as “journeyman”, and “grinder” are frequently mentioned when discussing a career of a Challenger level player.
These terms hold undertones that the player in question is a bit of a battler and has never really achieved much in the sport. As previously stated, I believe there is a cultural problem here when it comes to those athletes just outside the absolute elite.
God help us all if someone can be ranked 200 in the world, but still be considered a battler. For perspective, there are over 600 professional Aussie Rules players, coming from a very small pool in Australia. None of these athletes attract the moniker of ‘journeyman’, nor do they have to struggle to cover their costs.
For Australian players to gain more opportunity, and for tennis fans in Australia to have access to more elite tennis, TA needs to start putting some genuine effort into the Challenger Tour and change the narrative on how impressive the tennis at these events are.
What do we need to do to grow the Challenger tour? Plenty. But here’s a start:
Better TV coverage. This is not purely an Australian issue, it’s a global problem. TennisTV should be the go to place for all things tennis. Currently, you can view all the ATP 250’s+, while if you want to watch Challengers, you can find the stream on the ATP website. Let’s bring it all together. Additionally, it’s time to have commentary at all centre courts. This would be a perfect way for up and coming broadcasters to get their start in the sport. We could even experiment with less conventional ways of commentating, such as using current players at the tournament for a professional perspective. This would no doubt bring more eyes to the matches.
Tournaments must feel like an event worth attending. Crowds, sponsors, catering, etc. need to be a minimum requirement to hold a tournament. As mentioned, having been to Challengers here in Australia, you’d be lucky if 100 people wandered through the gate. Some tournaments in Europe are bigger than ATP events, with nightly entertainment, corporate boxes, on-site restaurants, etc. The question is then, how do we create that atmosphere here, when there is so much other local and international sport on offer?
Tournaments need to be held in smaller towns/cities, which don’t often hold international sport, and will appreciate, and respect the event. However, the most important part of this, is to advertise, promote, and encourage the local population to come out in support of it. Make it one of the must attend events on the local calendar. Think about how big Tennis Victoria’s Country Week is. Imagine combining that with a Challenger event. You wouldn’t want to miss it! Though it is of course, important that the host town isn’t too far from a major transport hub, or players will be very reluctant to come.
Drawcards are important in any event, but sometimes more so in these lower-tier competitions. Having a popular local player, a well known veteran, an up and coming youngster, etc. all helps to bring some attention to the tournament. For instance, back in 2010, Thomas Muster made his comeback at the Braunschweig Challenger in Germany. This is already one of the best tournaments on the tour, but having Muster in the draw, took it to another level. Tsonga has recently come back through Challenger level, and youngsters like Alcaraz and Sinner have been pulling people through the gates in Europe.
Social media can be a goldmine when done right. Having a well engaged social media platform is key for a tournament to grow its footprint. This should start 12 months out from the tournament and keep building throughout the year. In addition, TA’s channels need to keep pushing the events out to the wider audience. I feel very little has been done in the way of promoting the Challenger Tour here.
The bottom line is, we have a brilliant second tier tennis tour around the world, yet here in Australia, we are essentially ignoring it. For the sake of our players, and fans, we are doing ourselves a great disservice by not promoting what is actually, an elite competition. We can do better.