An abbreviated season due to COVID-19 saw the ATP Challenger Tour complete just 56 tournaments in 2020, in turn severely reducing the number of matches that took place, despite that, there was some great tennis action on the ATP’s minor league tour on the season. Here is a look at 10 of the best during a season to remember.
10. Francisco Cerundolo def. Pedro Sousa; Split F, 4-6 6-3 7-6 (4)
The 22-year-old Argentinian had been showing his clay-court potential for a while then but couldn’t quite make the extra step. His run in Split (and perhaps this match in particular) turned out to be the breaking point though and led to Cerundolo winning a tour-leading number of three ATP Challenger Tour events in 2020. The dramatic climax to this match saw him fail to serve out the match twice, but eventually, make up for it in the deciding set tie-break. It was a confirmation of his quality and perhaps a win that will be remembered as what kicked off a great career.
9. Jack Sock def. Ugo Humbert; Indian Wells R2, 7-6 (5), 6-4
It was an absolute delight to see Jack Sock giving tennis his all again. After a winless 2019 season and dropping out of the ATP Rankings, it seemed like granting him wildcards was a complete waste. It didn’t take him long to convince us otherwise though. His Indian Wells run was filled with memorable matches but the one against Humbert stands out as the first one where he showed real intent on coming back to the game. The Frenchman was on fire almost throughout the whole season and the match had some real quality.
8. Aleksandar Vukic def. Ernesto Escobedo; Monterrey SF, 6-7(3) 7-6(5) 7-6(4)
Perhaps a bit too serve-based to make it higher on the list, Aleksandar Vukic taking on Ernesto Escobedo managed to gather everyone’s attention with the level that both players presented, one that didn’t correspond with their rankings at all. 18 straight service holds might seem boring but the quality of tennis on display didn’t allow it to get so. It led to a very intense battle of the players knowing that it was absolutely essential to keep on to their serves and all that emotions culminated in the trio of extremely good tie-breaks.
7. Carlos Alcaraz def. Pedro Martinez; Alicante F, 7-6(6) 6-3
Next up, one of the matches that showcased Carlos Alcaraz’s insane potential. Never really playing his best, he was able to keep up with one of the breakout performers of this year and the streak of points that he produced from 4-6 down in the tie-break was just beyond ridiculous. Another high-quality Challenger Tour contest that perhaps lacked a bit of drama and a third set to make it a couple of spots higher.
6. Frances Tiafoe def. Brandon Nakashima; Dallas R3, 3-6 7-6(2) 7-5
This one had all the makings of a breakthrough win for Brandon Nakashima. Praised for his great mental toughness basically since he first showed up on the pro tennis circuit, it was actually this area of his game that didn’t pass the test against Frances Tiafoe. The teenager failed to serve out the match and couldn’t perform his best in the pivotal moments. But it was still impressive to see him give such a tough time to a much more experienced opponent and definitely gave him the motivation to keep working. Success was near.
5. Stan Wawrinka def. Aslan Karatsev; Prague F, 7-6(2) 6-4
The first week after the restart really delivered with the then ATP no. 17 Stan Wawrinka making an unlikely appearance on the circuit. This run would prove two things – the difference between the Challengers and the main tour is not as huge as you think, and that Wawrinka can be extremely inconsistent. Dropping a set in each of his first four matches, the 3-time Grand Slam champion had to fight hard for each and every one of them. But in the championship match, he did what champions do best – found another gear for the final. Aslan Karatsev played extremely well though and his achievements in the weeks to come say even more about the quality of this match. Karatsev would go on to win the next two Challenger Tour events, make a ranking jump of 140 places in three weeks and play impeccable tennis pretty much until the end of the year.
4. Lorenzo Musetti def. Frances Tiafoe; Forli R2, 6-4 5-7 6-2
This was not so much a breakthrough for Musetti but a confirmation. The previous week, the Italian youngster would qualify for the Rome Masters and take out Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori. Going down a level to the Challenger in Forli many expected fireworks. That’s what we certainly received in this blockbuster of a second-round against the top-seed Frances Tiafoe. Forli was to become Musetti’s first Challenger title and a part of a stunning run of beating six top 100 players over 12 days. It wouldn’t have happened without this high-quality clash where Tiafoe made him showcase both the completeness of his game and his tenacity. Musetti passed every test.
No. 3 – Jerzy Janowicz def. Jiri Vesely; Pau SF, 6-4 6-7(8) 7-6(9)
Jerzy Janowicz repeatedly unsuccessful comebacks to professional tennis have been one of the saddest stories of the past two years and at this point, everyone just expected him to pull out at the very last moment again. But here he was again, playing Challengers and France and looking surprisingly good given he hadn’t touched the court since November 2017. After two decent events, he took another wildcard to Pau, and with most of the rust already shaken off, the Pole really started to resemble the player who was a Wimbledon semifinalist and the world no. 14 in the year 2013.
While he ended up losing the final to another wasted talent and former great, Ernests Gulbis, Janowicz’s semifinal against Vesely was one of the highlights of the whole year. The two produced a stunning display of indoor tennis, basing their games around heavy serving and powerful groundstrokes. Totaling 49 aces in the whole match, it was like a textbook of how to use your first delivery to establish control in the rallies.
In a battle of mental strength in the deciding tie-break, Janowicz came out victorious. Down 3-5 with Vesely having one more serve, he fired a huge winner down the line off his weaker wing, the backhand, which allowed him to get things back to level. Facing a third match point at 7-8, the Czech double-faulted to give this brilliant match a bit of an ugly finish. The joy in Janowicz’s roar and his celebration said it all – a win like that over a recent ATP champion (Pune) was supposed to kickstart a wonderful comeback. But as we know, for reasons that remain pretty much unknown, the Pole was to play just two more matches that season.
No. 2 – Carlos Alcaraz def. Lorenzo Musetti; Trieste SF, 7-5 2-6 6-3
The context of this match is absolutely amazing. Two absolute stars of the game on the rise facing each other in the semifinals of a Challenger event. Both impressed just before the pandemic – Alcaraz by beating Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Rio de Janeiro, and Musetti playing a good match against Andrey Rublev in Dubai. There were reasons to be worried that for youngsters, players that aren’t fully developed yet, a break like that might be very harmful. As it turned out, these concerns were absolutely needless.
The style in which both Alcaraz and Musetti advanced to the semifinals was absolutely sublime. Neither of them lost a set in the main draw and the expectations for this match were huge. It seemed like it just can’t deliver but it really did. With a lot of momentum changes and inconsistencies of concentration characteristic for younger players, it was an extremely compelling watch that always made the viewer question what was about to happen next.
Ultimately, Alcaraz came out on top with the upside of his big forehand and the insane dropshot overweighing the unforced errors. Trieste ended up being his first Challenger title, one of three taken this season. But Musetti won’t be too hard on himself. The future is extremely bright for him too and about a month later, he won his first Challenger event as well, adding to that stunning wins over Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka at the Rome Masters.
No. 1 – Thiago Monteiro def. Marco Cecchinato; Punta Del Este F, 7-6(3) 6-7(6) 7-5
Topping the list is one of just two finals this year between the top two seeds (the other one happened at Lisbon). Punta Del Este Challenger was the only clay-court event before the pandemic and set just before the start of the ATP’s Golden Swing, it was important for some of the competitors to start gathering the momentum to succeed in these tour-level events. As it turned out, Cecchinato was to lose his next four matches and perhaps some of that struggle was due to losing that final in such a close call. Monteiro had a decent Golden Swing with two quarterfinal appearances.
So, what stood out here? Both Cecchinato and Monteiro are extremely good clay-court players that have proven to be worthy competitors even at much higher levels – the Brazilian has a top 10 win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on clay and made the third round at Roland Garros this year, Cecchinato famously beat Novak Djokovic on the way to the semifinals at the 2018 edition of that event. But on the 2nd of February, it was the less accomplished of the two that came out victorious after almost three hours of a grueling dogfight.
The two peaked in a dramatic game with Monteiro serving at 4-5 down in the third set. Faced with a first match point, the Brazilian wasn’t afraid to go for his shots and fired a classic combination of a lefty serve out wide and a big forehand into the open court. That serve on the ad-side was of massive help to Monteiro on Cecchinato’s further two opportunities as well. While he wasn’t able to finish these points as quickly as the first one, starting the rally from a comfortable position helped him to secure them. With the momentum now on his side, Monteiro was able to keep hitting his forehand perhaps the best he’s ever done it and get the deciding break. The match was even more memorable due to a great (as always in South America) crowd and a beautiful setting under the lights.