It has been a banner year for tennis in South America on the ATP Challenger Tour. With fresh faces announcing their arrival and a slew of new tournaments making their debuts, the region is making a serious statement on the global stage.
Their reward? Look no further than the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals, as Sebastian Baez and Juan Manuel Cerundolo descend on Milan. The pride of Argentina, Baez and Cerundolo are the first players from South America to compete in the showpiece 21 & under event, since its inception in 2017.
“Being able to compete so close to home was really important for me this year,” said Baez. “It is not easy for players in South America, to always travel to Europe, the United States and other places. It’s more than an economic difficulty, but also a mental and personal one. To have the opportunity to play many events so close to my country, while earning [FedEx ATP Rankings] points, is incredible.”
The opportunity that Baez refers to is not only a matter of convenience and comfort, but also one of livelihood for South American players. Spending many months away from home, while traveling the world fighting for their tennis dreams, is draining for even the most promising talents on the ATP Challenger Tour.
To those ends, South American tennis has taken a giant step forward in 2021, with the addition of 13 new Challenger events. Founded by former World No. 31 Horacio de la Pena, the Circuito Dove Men+Care Legion Sudamericana has contributed five of those events this year, with two more planned in Brazil next month and many more for the 2022 season. With the goal of changing the landscape of professional tennis across the continent, as more players have opportunities to develop and grow, De la Pena saw his efforts come to fruition just last month in Buenos Aires.
Photo: Challenger de Buenos Aires
It was in his hometown that Baez took a significant step forward with a victory at the Challenger de Buenos Aires. In front of friends and family, the 20-year-old became the youngest player to win five Challenger titles in a single season. And two days prior, it was his fellow #NextGenATP countryman Cerundolo who cemented himself inside the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Baez has won four of his five titles this year in South America, prevailing three times on Chilean soil (Concepcion, Santiago I and Santiago III), before celebrating at home in Buenos Aires. He also reached the Santiago II final, falling to Juan Pablo Varillas. Those victories vaulted him into contention in the ATP Race To Milan.
“What Juan Manuel and Sebastián did is really incredible and proves that South American tennis is always strong, when it has the opportunities to grow,” said De la Pena. “The meteoric rises in the rankings of these two young guys are added to many others, like Tomas Martin Etcheverry, Juan Pablo Varillas, Hugo Dellien, Facundo Mena, Gonzalo Lama and Francisco Cerundolo. Thanks to the number of Challenger tournaments in the region, they all managed to improve their ranking and are in position to have a much more prosperous 2022. We, as the Circuito Dove Men+Care Legion Sudamericana, are very grateful for the support of the ATP, which greatly helped us with this incredible project.”
As a whole, the continent has welcomed players and fans to a combined 19 tournaments across Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. Bolivia was also scheduled to host its first ATP Challenger event in 17 years, before it was postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic.
New tournaments included those in Concepcion, Chile (also organised by De la Pena), as well as Ambato, Ecuador, run by former World No. 6 Nicolas Lapentti, and Salinas, Ecuador, which was established by former World No. 4 Andres Gomez.
To say that South American players took advantage of these newfound opportunities is an understatement. Players from eight different countries reached a combined 59 Challenger singles finals, lifting 27 trophies in total. In fact, Baez and Cerundolo are two of 10 different Argentines to triumph on the circuit this year.
“To be able to play close to home was an important part of my season,” said Cerundolo, who reached his sixth final of the year last week in Lima. “It’s been good for all players from South America, like myself. I started the year outside the Top 300 playing ITFs across the world in Antalya. To get here is a dream.”
The slew of new tournaments in South America join the long-standing events in Lima, Peru, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, as well as this week’s 17-year-old tournament in Guayaquil, Ecuador and the 14-year-old event in Santiago, Chile. On Monday, the 20th edition of the Uruguay Open kicks off in the capital city of Montevideo. In addition, a five-week swing through Brazil will conclude the 2021 ATP Challenger Tour season, including events in Campinas, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.