What’s an offseason?
While most normal people stopped caring about tennis following the Czech Republic’s 3-2 win over Spain in the Davis Cup final, there is still action taking place on the ATP Challenger and Future circuits as well as the ITF women’s circuit. The *ahem* crown jewel of these events is the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, set to take place for the second consecutive year in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The event is a round robin competition and the top four competitors advance to the knockout stage of the tournament, much like the event’s big brother, the ATP World Tour Finals. The field is as follows:
Victor Hănescu, Romanian No. 1 and former World No. 26, qualified as the leader of the ATP Challenger Tour ranking. He won three Challenger titles in Szczecin, Banja Luka and Timisoara, and was the finalist in Sibiu, Bercuit and Arad.
Paolo Lorenzi enters the tournament on the back of his career high ranking, #63. A winner of two Challenger titles in Cordenons and Medellin, he was also a five-time finalist.
Aljaž Bedene won four Challenger titles at Wuhan, Kosice, Barletta and Casablanca – the most titles between the qualified players.
Guido Pella won three Challenger Tour titles at Campinas, Manta and Salinas. He also reached the final in Guayaquil and the semifinals in Rio de Janeiro and Lima.
Rubén Ramírez Hidalgo, the former World No. 50, won two Challenger titles in Tunis and San Luis Potosi, finished runner-up in Pereira.
Gastão Elias won his first ever Challenger title in Rio de Janeiro, and had three finalist showings at Caltanissetta, Porto Alegre and São Paulo.
Adrian Ungur reached six finals on the Challenger Tour, winning one title in Sibiu, and finishing as runner-up in Trnava, Brasov, Marrakech, Meknes and Bucaramanga.
Thomaz Bellucci, Brazilian No. 1 who is currently ranked #33, received a wildcard to the ATP Challenger Tour Finals for the second straight year. He won a Challenger title in Braunschweig, but also won his third career ATP World Tour title in Gstaad, defeating Janko Tipsarevic and lost the final in Moscow to Andreas Seppi.
One of these things is not like the others.
Bellucci is an interesting case. He is the only player from Brazil to currently have an ATP ranking inside the top 100, and will no doubt be a boost for fan interest in the tournament. More fans equals more revenue. But the question remains: does he truly belong there? Fans and pundits alike asked the same question a few weeks ago on the WTA when Tsvetana Pironkova was awarded a wildcard to the WTA Tournament of Champions in Sofia, despite having never won a WTA title; the Tournament of Champions will be held in Pironkova’s home country of Bulgaria for at least the next two seasons. These tournaments are hardly promoting the growth of the sport if they’re banking on one player to be their main source of revenue and to put fans in the seats.
The draw for the Challenger Tour Finals can be found below.
I don’t think that the Challenger Tour Finals is a bad idea in theory. Both the Challenger and Futures circuits are meant to be stepping stones to the ATP, whether it be a young player looking for a breakthrough or a veteran looking to return to the highest level. Why not reward those players who’ve dedicated themselves to that grind with an extra opportunity to pick up some cash and ranking points? My problem lies in this: why make a mockery of everything these events are supposed to represent by allowing Bellucci to compete in the “Challenger Tour Finals” despite having played only one Challenger event in 2012? In fact, what’s the point of top 50 players even playing Challenger events in the first place?
In the current top 50 of the ATP rankings, Fernando Verdasco (#24), Jerzy Janowicz (#26), Bellucci (#33), Fobio Fognini (#45), David Goffin (#46), Benoit Paire (#47), Grigor Dimitrov (#48) and Marinko Matosevic (#49) all competed in one or more events on the ATP Challenger circuit this season. Feliciano Lopez (while being ranked inside the top 30) played two Challengers in 2011; he won one in Bogota and lost in the first round in the other in Orleans.
You can throw Goffin’s, Matosevic’s and Janowicz’s results out the window as they started the season ranked 174, 203 and 221 respectively, and one would expect to see Challenger tournaments on their schedule; the same can be said for Paire, who jumped from #96 to #66 in the ATP rankings after making the final in Belgrade in the early portion of the year. The scheduling for some can be validated; Istomin dropped his opening match at the Australian Open to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and competed in the Burnie Challenger, which was held during the second week of the Australian Open.
Verdasco is a former top 10 player with five career titles and his scheduling in particular is mind-boggling. The Prostejov Challenger was held the week of June 4th, on outdoor clay. It was also the only tournament Verdasco played in-between the French Open and Wimbledon. Not exactly the ideal grass court preparation. For the record, Verdasco lost in the third round of Wimbledon to Xavier Malisse.
Bellucci is a 2012 title-winner on the ATP Tour and Fognini made two ATP finals. If they’re going to bother to play these events for any combination of match practice, money or points, shouldn’t they give more than half a damn? Istomin gave Sam Groth (#788 at the time, currently #210) a walkover in the second round in Burnie. Verdasco dropped his opener in Prostejov to Marek Semjan, an unranked wildcard. Fognini lost his second match in Barletta to Matwe Middelkoop (#253). When looking through the results of these players, it turns out that these trips to Challenger events rarely even count on their ranking.
Of course, the coin has two sides. For example, Lorenzi is sitting at a career high ranking that is comfortably inside the top 100 largely because of his success in Challenger events. The Italian has been thoroughly outclassed on the ATP World Tour in his career, and amassed an 8-17 in ATP matches in 2012; his best results on the main tour were two R16 showings in Los Angeles and Houston, and he fell in the first round of all four Grand Slams. Nine of the 12 of Lorenzi’s other ‘best countable tournaments’ are Challenger events.
Bellucci has already proven himself to be a capable player. There is no reason why he should be competing in the Challenger Tour Finals with a little over a month until the start of the 2013 season. He just seems out of place, just like Verdasco in Prostejov and Lopez in Orleans. His inclusion in this event just seems like a slap in the face to the seven others who qualified on merit.