It never occurred to me that I had not attended a men's ATP Challenger before yesterday. I have been to more than a few Futures events, a few $25,000 women's Pro Circuit tournaments, but my trip to Champaign for the final US Challenger of 2014 was my first in-person look at that level.
I'm not sure why that didn't seem to be a gaping hole in the fabric of my tennis coverage, but some of it can be explained by the frequent live streaming the USTA and ATP have undertaken. I've watched a great many matches on my computer the past two or three years, and with the production values so high, and the excellent play-by-play work done by Mike Cation this past 18 months, it's easy to feel as if you have actually been there.
Also, the level of tennis at a $50,000 Challenger is not substantially above the Division I college majors, with the players going deep in those three tournaments perfectly capable of winning rounds, if not the actual title, at a Challenger. Witness Julian Lenz of Baylor, who hasn't actually won a collegiate major either, getting to the quarterfinals of the Napa Challenger in September.
So how did Champaign stack up to my expectations, based on my Futures and college experiences?
Well, it's quieter, at least when compared to college matches. Granted I went early in the week and was there early in the day both Tuesday and today, but for those first matches you could count the actual "fans" as opposed to coaches, entourage, Illinois team members, on one hand. And although the crowd was bigger and louder for Illini senior Farris Gosea's match with Marcos Giron last night, it was still a far cry (or shout) from a typical college dual match.
I want to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from one 30-hour trip, especially when it's the last tournament of the year for many of those in the draw. But distinctions often drawn between juniors and pros, in behavior, game management, etc., seem to me to be exaggerated. They still get rattled over line calls, lose focus, whine, fail to exploit a weakness, still make inexplicable errors, still have difficulty serving out a match. That could be why they are not playing in London right now, but I suspect it's part of competing in the sport of tennis, at whatever level. Juniors may lack the range of experience, but the emotions are not all that different.
One major difference I observed was in the officiating. I saw two racquet abuses and a ball abuse that would have been point penalties in USTA events and certainly a warning in ITF junior events that were completely ignored by the chair umpires. Most college chair umpires would have also assessed code violations, but there was an obviously reluctance to even warn a player, which puzzled me. Mike Cation, who has seen hundreds of Challenger matches this year, tweeted that the permissiveness I witnessed was standard, not the exception I was hoping it was. With so little of that now at the very top of the men's game, I shudder to think what the lower levels would look like if the top level was less composed than it is.
There were a lot more officials, with a chair and five line judges, but that didn't lead to any more agreement with their calls.
Another thing that jumped out at me was the vast array of clothing worn by the players. Although there were some of the Nike outfits you see worn by all the top juniors, and a couple of players wearing Adidas, they were far outnumbered by the "field." Here are some of the clothing sponsors (players are probably not paid for wearing these clothes--Blaz Rola, who is No. 86 in the world, told me he does not have any endorsements), besides Nike and Adidas:
But no Uniqlo, New Balance or H&M, all of which are represented at the ATP World Tour Finals in London this week.
As for the tennis, five seeds, two qualifiers and a wild card have reached the quarterfinals. Rajeev Ram, Jared Donaldson, Noah Rubin and Jared Hiltzik were eliminated from the USTA's Australian Open wild card challenge with losses today, leaving just Marcos Giron to stand in the way of Denis Kudla, and Giron would have to reach the final to pass him. No. 5 seed Kudla defeated Hiltzik 7-5, 6-3 and will meet qualifier Frederik Nielsen of Denmark in Thursday's quarterfinals. Wild card Giron defeated No. 7 seed Gastao Elias of Portugal 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 this evening to earn a shot at top seed Adrian Mannarino of France. Donaldson lost to No. 2 seed Malek Jaziri 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, with the Tunisian moving on to play qualifier Marek Michalicka(CZE), who was sporting some of his Wisconsin Badger gear after his 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 6 seed James Duckworth of Australia. The other quarterfinal in the top half features No. 3 seed Blaz Rola of Slovenia against No. 8 seed Frank Dancevic of Canada. Dancevic defeated Rubin 6-2, 6-3. Complete results will be available here.
I spoke to Rola yesterday about his successful first 18 months on tour after winning the NCAA singles title in 2013, and that interview will be available on Tennis Recruiting Network next week. After Champaign, Rola is heading to Sao Paulo Brazil for the eight-player Challenger Tour Finals, which begin November 19.