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Best Of: From Challengers To Grand Slam Breakthroughs In 2023

  • Posted: Dec 08, 2023

Best Of: From Challengers To Grand Slam Breakthroughs In 2023

Arnaldi won three Challenger titles and reached US Open fourth round highlights five players who tasted success on the ATP Challenger Tour this season before shining at one of the four majors.

Christopher Eubanks
Coming into the season, the American was ranked outside the Top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings with just one major main-draw win. Closing 2022 by winning 11 of his final 14 Challenger-level matches was a sign of things to come for Eubanks. A quarter-final appearance at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami led Eubanks to his Top 100 debut.

During a South Korean Challenger swing across April and May, Eubanks reached two quarter-finals and a semi-final. The former Georgia Tech University standout started his grass season at the Surbiton Challenger, suffering a second-round exit. Then his life changed.

The 27-year-old collected his maiden ATP Tour level title in Mallorca and completed a dream run to the Wimbledon quarter-finals. En route to the last eight at the All England Club, Eubanks ousted 15th seed Cameron Norrie and fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

“My grass-court season got off to a bit of a rough start at the Surbiton Challenger. I began to question whether or not I could be good on the surface. I didn’t think that I could,” Eubanks said in July. “But my coach, Ruan Roelofse, and I, we put in a lot of work on the grass to try and understand the footing and the shots and everything that I would need to have in order to be successful.”

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Dominic Stricker
Making Swiss tennis history isn’t easy. After all, 20-time major champion Roger Federer and former World No. 3 Stan Wawrinka have etched their names into almost every record book for their home country. But the lefty Stricker managed to carve out a niche place in the record books by winning the Prague Challenger in May and become the only Swiss player to win five Challenger titles before his 21st birthday.

Stricker, who also won the Rovereto Challenger in February, enjoyed a breakthrough at the US Open, where he advanced through qualifying en route to a fourth-round appearance. In the second round, Stricker stunned Tsitsipas after firing 78 winners in a five-set thriller that lasted four hours, 10 minutes.

“I was down 3-5 and then I came back in the fourth set. I don’t know how, but I did it somehow and then I kept playing very high level tennis. I am a bit speechless,” Stricker said at the time.

His deep run at Flushing Meadows propelled him into the Top 100 for the first time on 11 September. The 21-year-old became the youngest Swiss to reach the milestone since 20-year-old Wawrinka did so in 2005.

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Dominic Stricker celebrates winning the Rovereto Challenger. Credit: Felice Calabro
Rinky Hijikata
The 22-year-old Australian partnered countryman Jason Kubler for the first time at their home Slam. The result? A fairytale run to their first Grand Slam title.

“I could never have imagined this, it is just unreal,” Hijikata said.

The dream start to the year continued for Hijikata, who did not drop a set en route to winning the Burnie Challenger, just eight days after winning the Australian Open doubles crown.

A wild card into the US Open, Hijikata reached the fourth round (l. Tiafoe), to earn his Top 100 debut. After the season’s final major, the former University of North Carolina star reached the Cary Challenger final and advanced to the last four at the Playford and Sydney Challengers.

“The Challenger Tour has been great for me. There’s so many quality players on the Challenger Tour and I honestly feel like the level isn’t too different between Challengers and ATP Tour events,” Hijikata said. “To make that transition is very important, to play Challengers and put yourself week in and week out against some quality players, just being able to back up good weeks week after week is hard to do and important.”

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Sebastian Ofner
Not many players were more successful on the ATP Challenger Tour in the first half of the year than Ofner. The 27-year-old Austrian reached four Challenger finals before his career-best moment at Roland Garros.

Ofner qualified for the clay-court major and showed no signs of slowing down. After racing past Maxime Cressy and Sebastian Korda, Ofner survived his second career five-setter, against Fabio Fognini, before falling to fifth seed Tsitsipas in the fourth round.

Following his deep run in Paris, Ofner jumped 37 spots in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings to mark his Top 100 debut. He then reached the Ilkley Challenger final in June and won his fourth Challenger title in July in Salzburg. Ofner finished the season at a career-high No. 43.

Matteo Arnaldi
The 22-year-old was the only Italian to win a trio of ATP Challenger Tour titles in 2023, with triumphs in Tenerife, Murcia and Heilbronn. Arnaldi earned his first Top 10 victory by defeating World No. 4 Casper Ruud in Madrid, where he also secured his Top 100 breakthrough.

In New York, Arnaldi’s career hit new heights. The Sanremo native advanced to the fourth round, having defeated 16th seed Norrie along the way to an Arthur Ashe Stadium match against top seed Carlos Alcaraz, who defeated Arnaldi in straight sets.

After starting the season at No. 134, Arnaldi boasted a 16-5 Challenger-match record and hit a career-high No. 41 in October.

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2023 Comeback Player Of The Year Nominees: Koepfer, Monfils, Struff, Zverev

  • Posted: Dec 08, 2023

2023 Comeback Player Of The Year Nominees: Koepfer, Monfils, Struff, Zverev

Our Comeback nominees each found a way to persevere in 2023

There’s nothing quite like a good rebound, a good revival. Our Comeback Player of the Year nominees in the 2023 ATP Awards — Dominik Koepfer, Gael Monfils, Jan-Lennard Struff and Alexander Zverev — will attest to that. All four players found a way to overcome injury and battle back toward the top of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in 2023.

Player Age 2023 Low Ranking  Current Ranking 
Dominik Koepfer  29  262  77 
Gael Monfils  37  394  74 
Jan-Lennard Struff  33  167  25 
Alexander Zverev  26  27 

Nominees for Comeback Player of the Year are determined by an International Tennis Writers’ Association (ITWA) vote. The winner is selected by players from the shortlist.

Stay tuned: ATP Awards winners will be announced during Awards Week, starting Monday, 11 December.

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Dominik Koepfer

Injuries are never easy — especially when the issue at hand is never fully diagnosed.

That’s been the case for Dominik Koepfer the last few years. After reaching a career-high No. 50 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in 2021, the German began to experience a nagging discomfort in his left arm, especially when serving. Despite closing out that year with an impressive Round of 16 showing at the Rolex Paris Masters, where he defeated Andy Murray and Felix Auger-Aliassime in succession, the pain lingered and he was forced to take time off.

An MRI, repeated doctor visits, and painkillers did nothing for the former Tulane All-American, and his ranking plummeted as low as No. 262 earlier this year.

“No doctor really knows what it is,” said Koepfer. “It’s probably instability in my shoulder and just maybe some nerve stuff, too, that’s a little stuck. Nothing really helped. I’ve literally tried everything I could. There was no surgery you could do because if there’s no diagnosis, really, you can’t really do anything to fix it.”

Credit the dogged Koepfer, 29, with finding a way to play through the pain. Beginning with the Challenger title at the Mexico City Open in March, he steadily climbed his way back up the rankings. He would reach five ATP Challenger Tour finals altogether in 2023, earn an opening-round shot against defending champ Carlos Alcaraz at the US Open, and finish the year at No. 77.

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Dominik Koepfer in Winston-Salem. Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Gael Monfils

There was ample reason for the emotion in Stockholm, where tour vet Gael Monfils became the oldest BNP Paribas Nordic Open champion in tournament history, a 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-3 winner over surprise finalist Pavel Kotov.

The ever-athletic Frenchman has experienced more than his fair share of physical setbacks since turning pro nearly two decades ago. The 2023 campaign was no exception. Monfils struggled with injuries in the first half of the season, and arrived in Sweden at No. 140 Pepperstone ATP Rankings. His trophy run was a testament to his longevity, his career-long dedication to the sport. After all, it was La Monf’s second Stockholm title, having won the ATP 250 event back in 2011. That 12-year gap between titles is the biggest in history. He became just the fourth player age 37 or above to win an ATP Tour title since 1990, joining Roger Federer, Ivo Karlovic and Feliciano Lopez.

Monfils dedicated the win to his mother, Sylvette; wife, WTA star Elina Svitolina; and baby daughter, Skaï.

“It’s the first time I’ve won a title as a father. She is very special,” said Monfils, who also notched Top 25 wins over Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alex de Minaur, Cameron Norrie, Alexander Bublik and Adrian Mannarino in 2023.

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Gael Monfils in Stockholm. Photo: Alexander Scheuber/BNP Paribas Nordic Open

Jan-Lennard Struff

Jan-Lennard Struff, 33, was in the midst of a career year, buoyed by runner-up finishes at the Mutua Madrid Open (where as a lucky loser he upended Stefanos Tsitsipas and pushed Carlos Alcaraz in a three-set final) and in Stuttgart. But after a No. 167-to-No. 21 catapult, the German was forced to shut it down due to a hip injury.

“It was a great year so far. I couldn’t have expected this, going this fast up to the Top 30 from outside the Top 150,” he said. “It was crazy how fast it went. It was an amazing year, so it was very hard to accept.”

The right-hander did not pick up a racquet for seven weeks while rehabbing, missing three months in all beginning in late June.

All this made his September return that much more meaningful, a 6-3, 1-6, 6-4 win over Chile’s Cristian Garin in Zhuhai in his first match back. Last month, Struff powered through to his third semi-final of 2023 in Sofia, very much back on track.

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Jan-Lennard Struff in Madrid. Photo: Getty Images

Alexander Zverev

The images from Paris are still fresh, Alexander Zverev crumpled on the terre battue, screaming in pain after rolling his ankle in the second set of his semi-final match against Rafael Nadal. His 2022 Roland Garros — his entire year, for that matter — was over.

Fast forward a year-and-a-half and the German is very much back in business, comfortably inside the Top 10 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Success was not immediate. In fact, Zverev would win just three of his first nine matches in 2023. But not only would he return to the Roland Garros semi-finals (l. to Casper Ruud), he would capture the 20th and 21st titles of his career in Hamburg and Chengdu, and qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals.

“After the injury last year, my first season back, to be back with the top eight players, to be back in Turin, is an achievement for me,” said Zverev at the year-end showdown, where he registered two of his four Top 10 wins on the year over Carlos Alcaraz and Andrey Rublev.

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Alexander Zverev at the Nitto ATP Finals. Photo: Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour

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Zhukayev's Journey: 'I Never Thought I'd Be A Professional Player'

  • Posted: Dec 08, 2023

Zhukayev’s Journey: ‘I Never Thought I’d Be A Professional Player’

The 23-year-old earned his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title this year

Kazakhstan’s Beibit Zhukayev first picked up a tennis racquet on a family vacation at age eight. A native of Aktau, population roughly 180,000, Zhukayev has defied odds to become a rising star on the ATP Challenger Tour.

“I never thought I’d become a professional player while practising in Aktau. It was for fun, we never had tennis coaches there or players,” Zhukayev told “I’m kind of like a superstar in that city. A lot of people tell me, ‘We never thought that someone would be that high in the rankings!’”

Zhukayev, who moved to Almaty in 2013, takes pride in being born and raised in Kazakhstan. “I’m real Kazakh,” he said. At No. 189 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, the 23-year-old hopes to see more tennis players emerge from his home country.

“Our tennis society and level is going up. I see a lot more children that are starting to play tennis and are more interested in the sport,” said Zhukayev, who is the second-highest ranked Kazakh, behind World No. 32 Alexander Bublik. “I believe in five, 10 years we will have more players competing.”

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If it were not for a family vacation to Türkiye, who knows if Zhukayev would be where he is today. Alongside his uncle at a resort in 2008, Zhukayev tried tennis and instantly fell in love. He also quickly caught on to a strategy.

“I made him run a lot. I loved playing corner to corner and made people run for the ball,” Zhukayev said. “My uncle fell down and he had a small injury on his knee. I still remember that he had a lot of blood on his knee and I was so sorry to him.”

A breakthrough moment for Zhukayev came in May at the Little Rock Challenger, where he advanced through qualifying en route to his first final at that level. Zhukayev went one step further in November, triumphing at the Jonathan Fried Pro Challenger in Charlottesville, Virginia. But all did not look so well at the start of the week, when Zhukayev fended off five match points to escape Thai-Son Kwiatkowski in the first round.

“I thought I was going to lose. I thought I would have another week of practice,” Zhukayev said. “I was kind of thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I just said, ‘Let’s just try to win the next point.’ I won it and I’d say, ‘Try to win another one.’ Then when he had three more match points in a game, I just said, ‘Try and win this point and see what happens.’

“The next day I was so sore and my legs were so tired. But I figured it out and started playing better and better every day. It was an incredible week for me.”

<a href=Beibit Zhukayev wins his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Charlottesville, Virginia.” />
Beibit Zhukayev wins the Jonathan Fried Pro Challenger. Credit: Al Hoover
Zhukayev earned his maiden ATP Tour main-draw victory this year in Shanghai, where he downed Italian Stefano Napolitano. Despite the 6’5” Zhukayev hammering 20 aces in the second round against Karen Khachanov, he suffered a three-set defeat in what was his first tournament at the ATP Masters 1000 level.

With his career-best season now in the rear-view mirror, the offseason will perhaps provide some downtime for Zhukayev to enjoy his hobbies: reading, driving and spending time with his family. Zhukayev has two brothers and a twin sister, Nazik, who was born 15 minutes after Beibit.

“I don’t watch any other sports. Sometimes I read political stuff to know what’s happening in the world,” Zhukayev said. “I’m a big fan of cars as well. I enjoy food, I think our Kazakh food is the best in the world.”

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Rivalries Of 2023: Djokovic vs. Rune

  • Posted: Dec 08, 2023

Rivalries Of 2023: Djokovic vs. Rune

Generational battle yielded three dramatic three-setters

After Holger Rune closed his 2022 ATP Tour season by beating Novak Djokovic in the Rolex Paris Masters final, the pair squared off again three times this year. Each match went the distance, all three-setters on some of the game’s biggest stages — in Rome, Paris (again) and at the Nitto ATP Finals looks back at their memorable matchups for 2023.

Rome QFs, Rune d. Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2
Rune earned his second straight win against the Serbian and, for the moment, moved ahead 2-1 in their Lexus ATP Head2Head rivalry with a focussed effort in rainy Rome. Djokovic clinched the second set after the players returned from a rain delay, but Rune composed himself to wrestle away the match at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

Rune made Djokovic work to close out the middle set from 5-2, but Rune had little trouble in closing out the victory after building a 4-0 lead in the decider — his third-set surge aided by a vexing combination of power and touch, including several well-timed drop shots.

“It’s really a big win for me,” said Rune, who converted on five of 10 break chances and hit 26 winners to Djokovic’s 22. “Obviously I did it last year in Paris as well, but every match is a huge challenge for me when I play against Novak. He’s one of the greatest that’s ever played the game… I’m super proud of myself and I enjoyed every moment out there.”

Paris QFs, Djokovic d. Rune 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-4
In a hotly anticipated rematch of their 2022 Rolex Paris Masters final, Djokovic earned double revenge by reversing both that result and the outcome in Rome.

While the outcome in their previous Paris-Bercy meeting was in doubt until the very last ball, Djokovic was determined to secure a more straightforward result this time around. He nearly finished the job in straight sets, but Rune saved a match point at 4-5 in the second and found a dangerous rhythm from the ground to power through the end of the set.

But Djokovic quickly regrouped to notch an early break in set three, and he offered Rune little hope of a comeback by making just one unforced error in the decider.

“It was quite a similar match to last year’s final, it was anybody’s game in every set,” said Djokovic, who would go on to win his record-extending seventh Paris-Bercy crown and 40th ATP Masters 1000 title. “Credit to him for staying mentally tough and playing solid. We have similar games: move well, defend well and we’re all-round players.”

Nitto ATP Finals RR, Djokovic d. Rune 7-6(4), 6-7(1), 6-3
Playing for the second time in 10 days, Djokovic and Rune again battled for three sets to open their campaigns in Turin. In his Nitto ATP Finals debut, Rune again gave Djokovic all he could handle.

Extended all-court exchanges were the norm despite fast conditions at the Pala Alpitour, such were the defensive skills on display from both competitors. After two heart-pounding sets, both in terms of physical exertion and drama, Djokovic pulled away in the decider — but not before Rune recovered an early break to stress the Serbian once more.

“It took everything,” said Djokovic, who clinched ATP Year-End No. 1 presented by Pepperstone honours for a record-extending eighth time with the win. “I saw in the first game, when he fired shots from the baseline in the first three or four points, I knew that it was going to be a tough life for me. If I wanted to win this match, I was going to have to work really hard… He was feeling the ball well, he was sharp. Very aggressive, every short ball he was coming in and he served terrific.”

In the final match of round-robin play, Rune nearly advanced to the semi-finals at the expense of Djokovic, but the Dane was turned back in three sets by home favourite Jannik Sinner. Djokovic would go on to defeat Sinner in the final to win his seventh Nitto ATP Finals crown, breaking a tie with Roger Federer.

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