On Tuesday, tennis in South America took a giant leap forward. It was announced that a new series of professional tournaments – the Circuito Dove Men+Care Legion Sudamericana – will be held, starting in April.
Founded and spearheaded by former World No. 31 Horacio De La Pena, the circuit is hoping to change the landscape of professional tennis across the continent and give players more opportunities to develop and grow. De La Pena is targeting 12 tournaments on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2021, kicking off with a four-week swing in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. It all begins in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra on 12 April.
Having enjoyed a successful 10-year career as a professional, De La Pena brings a unique perspective to his new role. He spoke to ATPTour.com about this new endeavor…
Horacio, this is a very ambitious project. Why did you decide to embark on this journey?
I was talking with many players and they all told me that South American tennis needs help to continue to grow. In relation to the rest of the world, it is in a tough position. Until now, we did not have tournaments close to our home countries. If you’re a young player looking to compete in professional tournaments, you have to leave home for a long time. And coaches also have to travel long distances to be with their players. This is not easy.
Now, we are giving these players the opportunities to grow and develop while being close to home. We are making swings with easy flights, same conditions, same altitude, same balls, same surfaces. It helps them take many steps [in the FedEx ATP Rankings] and build their games. There are many players that have the tools and the drive to compete at the highest levels, but they just need some help with the right tournaments. I’m happy that the ATP understands the needs of South American tennis and recognized the importance of this initiative.
With this endeavor, you are working to grow the game in all of South America, not just your home country of Argentina. What is your motivation to that end?
I really think that being united makes us stronger. If we all spread our efforts, to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, it will be better. If we stand together as a group, it will help South American tennis as a whole. That is the main thing. We are a strong group, but only working together. We created a ‘legion’, where all federations in South America come together and think about growth for the whole region. It’s the first time that the continent is coming together like this.
One of the most unique aspects of this circuit is how you’ve involved former South American stars. How did you get them on board?
I spoke with guys like Gustavo Kuerten (Brazil), Nicolas Lapentti (Ecuador), Luis Horna (Peru) and Santiago Giraldo (Colombia) about organising tournaments in their countries. Pablo Cuevas (Uruguay) and Hugo Dellien (Bolivia) are still playing, but they are helping too. Mariano Zabaleta and Agustin Calleri are going to run the tournaments in Argentina and Juan Monaco will help too. They all wanted to do something for tennis in South America, but they didn’t know how. We gave them a reason to stay in tennis, but with a purpose.
Our rising stars in South America don’t have connections and name recognition with the press and the public to promote these tournaments. Using the past champions and legends is important for that. We want these former stars to present the up-and-coming players. In that way, we have the older players involved in the growth of the newcomers.
Describe the structure of the Circuito Dove Men+Care Legión Sudamericana. How is the schedule organised throughout the year?
That’s another important thing. We are doing swings of tournaments before the qualifying of every Grand Slam. It starts with these four clay-court events before qualies of Roland Garros, then we will do a tournament on grass in Brazil right before Wimbledon and two more on hard courts ahead of the US Open. Going forward, we are looking to do the same on hard before the Australian Open. This is very important preparation for South American players before the Grand Slams.
There are many successful Challenger tournaments already in South America. In Guayaquil, Montevideo and Lima, they are each going for more than a decade now. What are you learning from those events in particular?
In Montevideo, Uruguay, the tournament run by Diego Perez, they have been on the tour for almost 20 years. We learn from every single one of them. This is the one thing we told everyone, that we are not coming to compete with other tournaments. We are giving more swings and more events in other parts of the calendar. They are all doing great work and have been for many years. We are building on that and hoping that sponsors will see this and want to invest in South American tennis even more.
You had a long career as a player. What is it like to see the tour from a different perspective?
It is a lot easier to help the players without doing many mistakes, because I’ve been there. I’ve been in the tour for 28 years in a row, as a player and as a coach. With most of the things that players ask of me, I know how to react and manage. I know what players need to be ready to compete. In our organization, we will try to give all the players to best possible accommodations and hospitality. There is a difference when you talk to someone you know has been there. I have a perspective that not many do.
De La Pena speaks at the Circuito Dove Men+Care Legion Sudamericana launch press conference. Photo: Prensa tenisconn/Sergio Llamera
Horacio, what are your memories competing on the Challenger Tour?
I won the title at the second Challenger I ever played. It was in Thessaloniki in Greece. The week before, I was playing in Italy and I got sick from drinking water from the sink. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t play the last round of qualifying in Palermo. So, I looked at the map and saw another tournament was in Thessaloniki – on the other side of the Adriatic Sea – and said, ‘oh, this is very close!’. I had to fly all the way to Rome, then to Athens and then to Thessaloniki.
I spent all the money I had and when I finally got to the club, the taxi driver told me we had arrived. I said to him that it’s not possible, because this club only had hard courts. He insisted that this was club. I didn’t even know that it was a hard-court tournament. It was the first hard-court tournament of my life. I went through the qualies and won the title. So, what are my memories of the Challenger Tour? I loved it. They give you the opportunity of starting your career. At the time, I won $5,000 in cash. I was so happy.
You also won titles in Bahia, Brazil and Bucharest, Romania, right?
Yes, and Bahia was the best tournament ever. It was located in the town of Itaparica. That was a great Challenger, right on the water. Perfect conditions and very beautiful.
How has the Challenger Tour changed from your playing days?
Now that I am older, I can look back on all the experiences that I had as a player. Now there are a lot of guys that can play into their 30s. Their bodies stay pretty healthy. When I started on the tour and I’m facing a guy in his 30s, I knew that if I made him run a little bit, he’s going to get tired. Now, these guys they are very healthy and are in great shape. The tour is a lot stronger. You have newcomers, guys who hit the ball very hard and guys with a lot of experience. The tour is very difficult now and for sure much tougher than before.
In your opinion, what is the importance of the ATP Challenger Tour in the landscape of professional tennis?
The Challenger Tour makes you very strong for the ATP Tour. The level is a lot stronger than when I played. You have newcomers who hit the ball really hard and guys with experience who are tough to beat. It’s such an important stage to pass and you have to win many, many matches to move up. The Challengers really filter who can make it and who cannot. You need to always be improving here.
It’s the first step where you really test yourself. When you go to the pro tour as a junior, you don’t understand why the other player is fighting so much to succeed. You don’t realize that he’s trying to make a living, put food on the table for his family and just fighting for things that you’re not used to fighting for. When you’re a junior, there are no consequences for losing. But when you start playing for money, for your future and your family’s future, you start taking it more seriously. That learning curve is so important in life. You need to have an extra level of tennis.