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Griekspoor, Rune, Brooksby… Look out for the ATP Challenger Tour’s 2021 stars in 2022
Some players have started to make names for themselves on the ATP Challenger tour this year – we cast an eye over their best achievements and what we can expect from them in 2022
Never before has a player won more than six Challengers in a single year. That was achieved by Younes Al Aynaoui in 1998, Juan Ignacio Chela in 2001, and Facundo Bagnis in 2016.
Benjamin Bonzi was well on his way to taking the record alone in September, having won four consecutive Challengers. But the invincible Nîmes native fell short, and his total stopped at six, like the others.
And he was overtaken by a 25-year-old Dutchman: Tallon Griekspoor, winner of eight titles.
In 2021, Argentinean tennis has continued to grow, the Czech Republic and Slovakia may have found a way to re-establish themselves in the top 50 in the medium term, and Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka may have found a compatriot capable of winning titles on the ATP circuit.
And Brooksby and Rune have already progressed to the ATP Tour and look ready for the future. Here are 11 players who have shone this season on the Challenger Tour and who will be the ones to watch on the ATP Tour in 2022.
Tallon Griekspoor: The big surprise
- 25 years old, Netherlands
- Ranking at the end of 2020: 153
- Ranking at the end of 2021: 65
- Number of Challenger titles in 2021: 8
- Challenger record in 2021: 42-7
Griekspoor’s win against Stan Wawrinka in Rotterdam in 2018 was promising. So were his wins over Carlos Alcaraz and Marcos Giron and his very narrow loss to Ugo Humbert in Montpellier in 2021. Then, he did even better. The Dutchman became the most successful ATP Challenger player in a season with eight trophies won: Prague (May), Bratislava (June), Amersfoort (July), Murcia (September), Naples and Naples 2 (October), Tenerife and Bratislava (November).
One stat exemplifies his end-of-season run: since his defeat against Novak Djokovic in the second round of the US Open (he opened his Grand Slam account against Jan-Lennard Struff on Friday September 3), the Dutchman has gone unbeaten: five Challenger titles, 26 wins, an ongoing streak. With a good serve and a solid game, success on clay (six titles) as well as on hard court (2 titles), Griekspoor has the weapons to break into the top 50 in 2022.
Benjamin Bonzi, a real challenger
- 25 years old, France
- Ranking at the end of 2020: 165
- Ranking at the end of 2021: 64
- Challenger titles in 2021: 6
- Challenger record in 2021: 50-13
Since he began working with Lionel Zimbler, the former coach of Cyril Saulnier and Benoît Paire at the end of 2019, Benjamin Bonzi has been a different player. Close to 400th in the world rankings at that time, the Nîmes native is now 64th. “His state of mind was not good. He was hiding three metres behind his line and just kicking balls,” says Zimbler of what he saw of his young charge two years earlier. Much more attacking, much more confident, much more solid on serve, Bonzi exploded in 2021: six titles, including a sensational St-Tropez – Cassis – Rennes sequence.
He also managed to win a third Grand Slam match at Wimbledon. But Bonzi has played little on the main circuit (2-5 at the ATP level), which has probably put him out of contention for selection for the French Davis Cup team. He will certainly improve this in 2022: a few good performances on the ATP tour or at the Grand Slams could allow him to quickly continue to climb.
Jenson Brooksby, the atypical American
21 years old, USA
Ranking at the end of 2020: 307
Ranking at the end of 2021: 56
Challenger titles in 2021: 3
Challenger record in 2021: 23-3
Jenson Brooksby is already well established in the top 100, having been a finalist in Newport and a double semi-finalist this season; in Washington and Antwerp. The Sacramento native has already experienced the second week of a Grand Slam, where he took a set from Djokovic in the fourth round of the US Open. Brooksby has also scored some big scalps with wins over players such as Tomas Berdych, whom he sent into retirement in 2019, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Aslan Karatsev, Frances Tiafoe, and Reilly Opelka.
But the American had started the 2021 season well outside the top 300, making a name for himself in February with an ATP Challenger title in Potchefstroom and a final in March in Cleveland. Then Brooksby won Orlando and Tallahassee in April – and he gradually left the second-tier Challenger circuit to try his hand at the higher level, earning him the award for ‘Breakthrough Player of the Year’ on the ATP tour.
The American’s unorthodox technique, including his two-handed chips and volleys, is fascinating – as is his tactical approach.
“Jenson Brooksby is the kind of player I love to watch,” Andy Murray said of him on Twitter. “His slice and backhand volley are almost identical to Florian Mayer’s.” If his body holds up (the American) had to skip the entire 2020 season as well as the Rolex Paris Masters and then the Next Gen Finals in 202), Brooksby could quickly be at the forefront.
Sebastian Baez, the little Argentinian
- 20 years old, Argentina
- Ranking at the end of 2020: 309
- Ranking at the end of 2021: 99
- Challenger titles in 2021: 8
- Challenger record in 2021: 44-7
Argentine tennis has a good season in 2021. Behind their No 1 Diego Schwartzman, still in the top 20, and four top 100 players who are approaching or have turned 30, four others are under 23. Sebastian Baez is one of them, with his first tournament of the season leading to his first title in Concepción in February.
After that, Baez went from strength to strength, both in South America and in Europe. Three titles and three finals in ATP Challenger tournaments opened the doors to the Next Gen Finals, where he proved that he could succeed on surfaces other than clay. The pocket-sized Argentinian (1.70m) beat Lorenzi Musetti and Hugo Gaston to reach the semi-finals. In the longer term, will he manage to be dangerous on hard court? Baez will attempt to answer that during the Australian summer in 2022.
Juan Manuel Cerundolo, the Buenos Aires clay specialist
- 20 years old, Argentina
- Ranking at the end of 2020: 341
- Ranking at the end of 2021: 90
- Challenger titles in 2021: 3
- Challenger record in 2021: 39-17
Cerundolo leads the pack of four young Argentines. The 20-year-old exploded in his first tournament of the year, coming through qualifying to win the ATP 250 in Cordoba thanks to his victory over his second top 50 player, Albert Ramos-Vinolas. The result moved the left-hander from 335th to 181st in the rankings.
There was still some way to go to break into the top 100, and Cerundolo headed for the Challenger circuit. Three titles, including a Como-Banja Luka run in September and two finals, enabled him to overtake his older brother Francisco (currently 127th in the world) to move into the top 100 and to qualify and join Baez for the Next Gen Finals.
Cerundolo ‘s lack of power could hold him back on surfaces other than clay. But does he want to leave clay? In 2021, he played only four matches elsewhere – one match at Wimbledon in qualifying and three at the Next Gen Masters – and lost all four.
Holger Rune, Denmark’s rising star
- 18 years old, Denmark
- Ranking at the end of 2020: 473
- Ranking at the end of 2021: 104
- Challenger titles in 2021: 4
- Challenger record in 2021: 39-11
The youngest player on this list – and if it weren’t for the pandemic and the freezing of the ATP rankings, Holger Rune would almost certainly be a member of the top 100. But Rune will be in a few weeks. Behind Carlos Alcaraz, the Dane is, by a big margin, the best product of 2003 on the men’s circuit.
After a title and two finals in ITF Futures, Rune moved up to the Challenger circuit with flying colours: four titles (Biella 7 in June, San Marino and Verona in August, and Bergamo in November), and then reached a first ATP quarter-final in the ATP 250 in Buenos Aires.
He repeated this performance in September in Metz by beating a second top 30 player – Lorenzo Sonego (his first came over Benoît Paire in Chile in March). Two weeks earlier, he had managed to take a set from Djokovic at the US Open, which bodes well for his long-term potential. His all-round game and ability to play well on all surfaces should take him to the top in 2022.
Alex Molcan, following in Klizan’s footsteps
- 24 years old, Slovakia
- Ranking at the end of 2020: 312
- Ranking at the end of 2021: 88
- Challenger titles in 2021: 2
- Challenger record in 2021: 35-13
With Martin Klizan retiring and Norbert Gombos, Andrej Martin and Lukas Lacko getting older, has Slovakian tennis found its leader for the next few years? Alex Molcan made a name for himself last May when he reached the final of the ATP 250 Belgrade 2 (beaten by Novak Djokovic) as a qualifier.
Three months later, he was in the third round of the US Open, having come through the qualifying draw. Those two big results brought him closer to the top100 but Molcan also benefited from the secondary Challenger tour: two Challenger titles in Liberec (August) and Helsinki (November), plus a final in Prostejov. With four top 100 scalps in his bag, the Slovak will be among the ones to watch in 2022.