This week, I watched my first ever Challenger tennis. I've always known it was out there, sort of in the abstract... you know, out there, existing, but I never thought of watching it. Or even checking the results.
You have Nicolas Mahut to thank for my transformation. With a soupcon of Amir Weintraub, because his column has got me absolutely fascinated with the hardcore life these players live.
The match I watched was an absolute cracker - a Hopman Cup reunion match in Courmayeur between Ruben Bemelmans and my beloved Nico. Mahut ended up winning in a third set tie break. It was engaging and entertaining and generally, the level was pretty damn high. I mean, neither dude is Federer or Nadal, but only two dudes get to be them. It was a good match. I don't think it would have been out of place in a tour level tournament.
Amir Weintraub writes in his column about how playing Australian Open qualies really made him feel like he was on the same level as the guys ranked #100-#200 and how he could really send himself skyrocketing up the rankings, how it was real and tangible and could really happen. But then the next week in Eylat he lost to a guy ranked in the #600s and he got all depressed, because he felt like maybe he wasn't doing as well as he thought.
What this really highlights for me is how good so many guys are, how close. It's a fight for every ranking point on the Challenger and Futures tour because one ranking point can be a big difference. At the top of the game, it wouldn't matter whether Nadal gained a point or lost a point, because he'd still be 3,000 points ahead. On the satellite level... if you gain a point, you could jump quite a lot on the computer.
If Nicolas Mahut wins in Courmayeur, I'm pretty sure he'll go back into the top hundred. I felt pretty gypped on his behalf when I found out he got 45 ranking points for making second round at the Australian Open - I felt like that was barely anything. And then I read Weintraub's column about how happy he was to get eight ranking points just for playing first round qualies - how he played the tournament in Eylat in the hunt for 17 points. 17. It seems like nothing. But it's everything.
And yet the level of these guys, if the Mahut/Bemelmans match is used as an indicator, is not so far off the tour level. It's a very fine line between good enough and not quite there. And it seems to me that there must be a lot of luck involved - as well as talent and skill and tenacity and whatnot - in getting there. Getting into the top hundred, playing on tour level instead of being stuck in the satellite dogfight... everyone works for it, but only a few get lucky.
There's part of me that wants every single guy on this satellite circuit to make it - for their hard work to pay off. The reality is that not every guy is going to make it. Not every guy gets the fairy tale. Some guys are going to be stuck here slogging it out forever, in this world where one ranking point can make you or break you.
But that doesn't mean that they're not awesome tennis players.
Challenger tennis. It's worth watching. For reals.
4 weeks ago