Challenger Season In Review: 12 Storylines In 2021
Griekspoor The Great
For many players competing on the ATP Challenger Tour, winning one title in a season is an accomplishment.
Eight? Well, that’s just ridiculous.
This year, Tallon Griekspoor did just that, smashing the single-season record for Challenger titles. A perfect 8-0 mark in finals etched his name in the history books and vaulted him to the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, peaking at a career-high No. 64.
The 25-year-old provided glimpses of his potential throughout 2021, pushing Casper Ruud to a deciding tie-break at the ATP 500 event in Acapulco, before qualifying for the Wimbledon main draw from two sets down. And he would hold his own against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open.
But even Griekspoor could not believe what would ensue in the final months of the season. After falling to Djokovic in New York, an inspired Dutchman became an unstoppable force. And that’s no exaggeration. Five straight titles and 25 consecutive match wins shocked the tennis world and put the rest of the tour on notice. Regardless of the surface or the opponent, Griekspoor refused to lose. Clay-court titles in Murcia and Napoli I & II in October would be followed by a record seventh crown on the hard courts of Tenerife, and unprecedented eighth victory on indoor hard in Bratislava.
Inspired by countryman and 2021 Formula One world champion Max Verstappen and armed with newfound confidence and an aggressive mentality, Griekspoor made his mark on a record-breaking season. Next stop: the ATP Tour in 2022.
Brooksby Hits The Big Time
To open a Challenger campaign with three titles from four finals is impressive, but to also do it to launch a professional career is unprecedented.
As fearless a competitor as they come, Jenson Brooksby’s physicality and mental drive have been on full display since he turned pro in January. He would soon cement his name in the record books with his maiden trophy in Potchefstroom, South Africa, followed by back-to-back crowns on home soil in Orlando and Tallahassee. In doing so, the #NextGenATP star became the youngest player in Challenger history to win three titles in the first four months of a season.
After missing all of 2020 with a significant turf toe injury, the 21-year-old California native’s Newcomer of the Year campaign soon kicked into high gear with a seamless transition to the tour-level. He would immediately reach the final in his ATP Tour debut in Newport and stunned World No. 15 Felix Auger-Aliassime en route to the Citi Open semi-finals. And Brooksby did not stop there, streaking to the Round of 16 at the US Open, before succumbing to Novak Djokovic in a spirited battle on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
From outside the Top 300 and competing in ITFs to open the season to knocking on the door of the Top 50 and making noise on the ATP Tour by year’s end… Brooksby’s breakthrough was one we won’t soon forget.
For Sebastian Baez, it was the cherry on top of a historic 2021 campaign.
One week after showing off his talents on the global stage of the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals, the charismatic 20-year-old from Buenos Aires celebrated his biggest milestone yet. In late November, the pride of Argentina surged into the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings after clinching his sixth ATP Challenger Tour title of the year.
Baez showcased his supreme agility and abundance of energy throughout his breakthrough season. One of the more consistent and dominant performers on the Challenger circuit, he was one of just three players with a win percentage of 80 per cent or higher (86.3), along with Brooksby and Griekspoor. And his 44 match wins set the record for most victories by a player aged 20 & under in a single season.
Battling with #NextGenATP countryman Juan Manuel Cerundolo for Argentine supremacy throughout the season, it would be Baez who lifted more trophies by year’s end. The World No. 99 reached a Challenger-leading nine finals in 2021 and became the youngest player in Challenger history with six titles in a single season.
“Now I want to have the greatness that the best players in the world have,” said Baez. “I know I can still improve. My ceiling is high and every day I want to be better than the day before.”
In the latter months of the season, all the attention was on Griekspoor and Baez as they shattered records and surged to Top 100 debuts. But don’t forget who started the six-title trend in 2021.
Benjamin Bonzi was the first of the trio to join the exclusive club, making a Top 100 debut of his own with three straight crowns on home soil in September, prevailing in Saint-Tropez, Cassis and Rennes. Moreover, his 50 match wins set the standard on the ATP Challenger Tour this year, leading all players.
Peaking at the age of 25, the Frenchman credits his stunning surge, which has seen him rise to a career-high No. 60 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, to the work he and coach Lionel Zimbler have put in, both on and off the court. A ‘more serene’ Bonzi admits that improving his mentality between the lines has made the difference.
“It’s been a long journey to get here and I’ve been through some very tough moments,” said Bonzi. “To be here now and playing good tennis has not been easy, but it’s a great feeling.”
The Rune Revolution
From Brooksby to Baez and Cerundolo, it was an unforgettable season for the #NextGenATP contingent on the ATP Challenger Tour. Holger Rune also played a massive part in that surge for the 21 & under group.
Rune took the Challenger circuit by storm in 2021 and he would also etch his name in the history books. At the age of 18 years and six months, the teen became the second-youngest player to win four titles in a single season with his victory in Bergamo in November. Only a 17-year-old Richard Gasquet was younger when he achieved the feat in 2003.
In addition, Rune joined the exclusive list of players to win four titles before their 19th birthday, along with Gasquet (7), Tomas Berdych (5), Carlos Alcaraz (4), Felix Auger-Aliassime (4), Mario Ancic (4), Guillermo Coria (4) and Hyeon Chung (4). It was yet another statement victory in a season of breakthroughs for the Danish sensation, who capped his campaign with an appearance on the big stage of the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals.
On the precipice of a Top 100 debut, the World No. 103 is already looking forward to a full season on the ATP Tour in 2022. The ambitious Dane is ready for the challenge.
“Maybe I could play a couple more Challengers to get into the Top 100, then I’ll focus on the Grand Slams and ATP Tour tournaments,” said Rune. “I am enthusiastic about the idea.”
Attack Of The Argentines
For just the fourth time in ATP Challenger Tour history, a country has accounted for 20 titles in a single season. Where Baez and Cerundolo led the #NextGenATP charge for the South American nation, it was Tomas Martin Etcheverry’s 49-win season, Federico Coria’s two titles and a slew of other breakout performances that carried the flag.
Etcheverry finished second on the match wins list in 2021, behind only Bonzi, while Coria rose to a career-high No. 61 in the FedEx ATP Rankings with crowns in Prostejov and Brasilia. Seven other Argentines won titles this year, including an emotional Facundo Mena, who returned to the winners’ circle, in Quito, nearly two years after the passing of his father.
Francisco Cerundolo ensured that he and brother Juan Manuel Cerundolo would be just the sixth pair of siblings to win Challenger titles in a single season, with his victory in Cordenons.
Five years after fracturing a vertebrae in his back and fighting to stay healthy, Pedro Cachin lifted a trophy for the first time since 2015, prevailing in Oeiras.
And the trio of Juan Pablo Ficovich, Thiago Agustin Tirante and Camilo Ugo Carabelli all captured their maiden Challenger titles. Tirante joined Baez and Cerundolo as #NextGenATP Argentines to enter the winners’ circle this year.
The American Onslaught
A total of 12 different Americans lifted singles trophies this year, the most by any country on the ATP Challenger Tour. Where Brooksby led the charge in the first half of the season, it was Stefan Kozlov who flew the flag in the latter months of 2021.
After many years fighting for belief and purpose on the court, the 23-year-old is steadily carving his own path up the FedEx ATP Rankings once again. Kozlov, who achieved a career-high No. 115 in 2017, is back inside the Top 200 for the first time in three years. He closed out his Challenger season on a 20-2 run, winning titles in Columbus, Charlottesville and Champaign and securing a main draw wild card into the 2022 Australian Open.
Christopher Eubanks and Mitchell Krueger added a pair of titles apiece, with Brandon Nakashima and Sebastian Korda lifting trophies en route to Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals debuts. Mackenzie McDonald triumphed in Nur-Sultan, on his way to Comeback Player of the Year honours in the 2021 ATP Awards. McDonald, who fell as low as World No. 272 after undergoing right hamstring surgery in 2019, rose to a career-high No. 54 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Bjorn Fratangelo, Jack Sock, Frances Tiafoe, J.J. Wolf and Maxime Cressy also won titles this year. Sock ended a four-year title drought in Little Rock, while Fratangelo halted a three-year absence from the winners’ circle in Cleveland. Wolf won his first title in his return from hernia surgery in Las Vegas, as Cressy capped an impressive late-season surge with a victory of his own in Forli, Italy. Cressy is riding a wave of momentum, having also earned his first Top 20 win (d. Carreno Busta) at the US Open and first ATP Masters 1000 match win in Indian Wells.
You Always Remember Your First
A total of 39 players celebrated their maiden moments of glory on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2021. At 18 years and 1 month, Holger Rune was the youngest with his first of four Challenger titles in Biella, Italy. At 28 years and 4 months, Franco Agamenone was the oldest with his maiden crown in Prague.
Liam Broady won his long-awaited first title in his eighth final appearance, lifting the trophy in Biel, Switzerland. Seven years after making his Challenger final debut, the Brit finally put it all together on the indoor hard courts of Biel. It’s the second-most finals needed to win a maiden title in Challenger history.
Seven teenagers won their maiden crowns, with 18-year-olds Dominic Stricker and Dalibor Svrcina and 19-year-olds Carlos Gimeno Valero, Jiri Lehecka and Giulio Zeppieri joining Rune and Cerundolo in titletown.
Other notable first-time winners include Daniel Altmaier, as the injury-plagued German won in Braunschweig, Luedenscheid and Puerto Vallarta en route to the year-end Top 100 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. The World No. 84, who has struggled with shoulder and abdominal ailments, also reached a pair of ATP 250 semi-finals in Umag and Kitzbuhel.
The exuberant and attack-minded Zizou Bergs won a pair of titles as a qualifier, in St. Petersburg and Lille, before claiming his first clay-court crown in Almaty. And a 24-year-old Alex Molcan carried the momentum from a first ATP Tour final appearance, falling to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Belgrade, en route to capturing his first Challenger titles in Liberec and Helsinki. The Slovak would also reach the third round of the US Open, soaring to a career-high of No. 87 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Challenger Stars Shine At US Open
This list would not be complete without a nod to Botic Van De Zandschulp. One of the more consistent performers on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2021, the Dutchman streaked to the US Open quarter-finals in stunning fashion as a qualifier. Wins over Top 15 seeds Casper Ruud and Diego Schwartzman were followed by a four-seat defeat to eventual champion Daniil Medvedev. In fact, the 26-year-old was the only player to take a set off Medvedev in New York.
With his back against the wall in nearly every match he played, having rallied from a set down in all three qualifying encounters as well as his first three main draw clashes, Van de Zandschulp provided a true fairytale run. Just like Aslan Karatsev did earlier in the year at the Australian Open, the Dutchman showed that Challenger stalwarts are capable of making some serious noise on the Grand Slam stage. All these players at the Challenger level have the talent to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
Molcan is another example of exactly that, stepping up with his run to the third round at Flushing Meadows as a qualifier. Germany’s Oscar Otte reached the fourth round, also as a qualifier, where he took a set from sixth seed Matteo Berrettini.
Brooksby took full advantage of his main draw wild card in battling to the Round of 16 and giving Djokovic all he could handle in a four-set defeat. The World No. 1 would face three of the year’s biggest Challenger stars at the US Open, dueling with Rune, Griekspoor and Brooksby under the bright lights.
Portuguese, French Pairs Dominate Doubles
Nuno Borges and Francisco Cabral led the ATP Challenger Tour with six team titles. The Portuguese duo dominated on home soil, where they lifted four trophies. Frenchmen Sadio Doumbia and Fabien Reboul finished second with five team crowns.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s Orlando Luz and Rafael Matos led the charge in the individual doubles title race. Luz claimed eight trophies with four different partners, while Matos captured seven crowns with a pair of partners. Together, they won four titles, in Cordenons, Concepcion, Tallahassee and Rio de Janeiro.
Manama Makes Dazzling Debut In Middle East’s Return To Tour
The ATP Challenger Tour returned to the Persian Gulf, as the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain welcomed players and fans in late November. It marked the nation’s first appearance on the Challenger circuit since 1984, with the capital city of Manama playing host. The Ministry of Interior of Bahrain put on a show from start to finish, organizing a first-rate first-time event. Ramkumar Ramanathan claimed his maiden title in his seventh final, ending one of the longest title droughts in Challenger history.
New French events in Roanne and Saint-Tropez, as well as Spanish tournaments in Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Pozoblanco, also celebrated their debuts on the Challenger circuit. Meanwhile, a total of nine tournaments in Portugal offered new opportunities for players in the region, including fresh events in Oeiras and Porto.
Dove Men+Care Circuit Shines Spotlight On South American Tennis
It was 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.
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 took a giant step forward in 2021. As a whole, the continent welcomed players to a combined 19 tournaments across Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. Bolivia is also scheduled to host its first ATP Challenger event in 18 years to kick off 2022.
Founded by former World No. 31 Horacio de la Pena, the Circuito Dove Men+Care Legion Sudamericana has contributed seven of those events this year, with many more planned for the 2022 season. To say that South American players took advantage of these newfound opportunities is an understatement. Players from eight different countries reached a combined 68 Challenger singles finals, lifting 32 trophies in total.