This blog aims to both chronicle and celebrate the unsung heroes of the pro tennis world: the Challenger and Futures players who grind it out each day, oftentimes well outside the spotlight and with little or no fanfare. For those not in the know, the ATP Tour – in addition to the different 1000, 500, and 250-level tournament tiers – consists of hundreds of professional events at levels just beneath that of the ATP. Challenger tournaments are contested every week from January to December all over the world, with total purses usually ranging between 30-125,ooo dollars. The fields for these events mostly consist of players ranked between #100-#250 in the ATP World rankings. Futures tournaments are the entry level of men’s professional tennis, with total purses of $10,000 or $15,000 and players usually ranked #250 and below.
Some refer to these circuits as “the minor leagues” of tennis, and in some respects that’s an accurate label. At the same time, these tournaments are the very hardscrabble proving grounds for players who will be making impacts at the very top levels of the tour in the next one to three years. The ranking points system is such that almost every player, no matter how talented, has to traverse this terrain on the way to the top. Roger Federer has a challenger title in addition to some of his more resume-enhancing accomplishments. Andy Murray has two titles, Djokovic three. Rare is the talent who can bypass these levels and start immediately competing at the highest echelons of the sport.
So at any given time, a challenger or a future event will be hosting a few players who are bound for greatness. They may even have the talent to compete at ATP level in the moment, but need to earn the requisite ranking points in order to be entered into those events without qualifying or wildcard assistance. Sadly, these terrific talents often toil so far outside the spotlight it’s amazing they can still see the ball. For my money, Challenger and Future tournaments are the best bargains in pro sports. Some Challenger events are free to the public, but for the most part the price of admission runs from 5-20 bucks. Most Futures events are free. And the closeness to the players and the action is unparalleled.
There is more depth in the men’s game now than ever. And the difference between #20 and #200 in the world rankings is harder to discern than ever. Oftentimes, the #25 player and the #250 player will have the same ability, but the former will have better physical conditioning, mental strength, court sense or playing smarts. The Challenger Tour is where players with top talent can hone their skills in the latter three of those aptitudes.
For all the similarities in talent, though, there are many glaring differences in lifestyle and conditions to be found: the #25 player in the world earns just under $1,000,000.00 per year, while #250 takes in less than $50,000. But the disparity is even more disproportional than that, as top-tier players have clothing and racquet sponsorships and many things are gifted to them, while those ranked in the hundreds are often scrambling for gear and paying out of pocket. And let’s not forget: all these players have to pay for travel and coaching as well. So while it may be hard to imagine that someone making $50K/year is just scraping by, in many instances that is exactly the case with these athletes.
And it doesn’t just stop there. The Top 100 or so enjoy ATP venues and spectators and hotels and transport, while those on the Challenger and Futures tours sometimes play in front of no one, in cities that are hard to reach, fending for themselves. This dichotomy plays out in the media as well. The Top 20 get all the coverage and the adulation, while those outside the Top 200 get… nothing really. So while the talent difference can be minimal, there’s a glaring disparity in conditions enjoyed/survived by the different tiers of tour players. And usually, if you’re the 200th best anything in the world, you’re entitled to a lot more than what many of these players experience as people living near the top of their field.
As one who’s long been passionate about these so-called “lower-tier” tourneys and players, I figured it was about time to at least try to help fill the coverage void. On this site I hope to be able to tell some of the stories of these great players as well as those who do the good work that goes into putting together the events that host them. It is my intention to bring the excitement of these tournaments to you with honesty, insight, humor and hopefully some degree of intelligence. I hope you come along for the ride.
Oh, and who am I? I am a former junior ranked player who was far too much of an on-court headcase to ever make a serious dent in the pro tennis world. I once had an offer to coach a lower-level pro and travel these very roads that I so espouse, but life circumstances dictated otherwise at the time. I am a certified (and some would say certifiable) tennis FANATIC who will get up at any hour to watch virtually any streamed match anywhere in the world. I currently live in the northeast U.S. and usually attend the Newport, New Haven (ATP R.I.P.) and USO tourneys every year in addition to Delray Beach (outer courts and qualies for me, thanks). This year I will be covering some Futures events in Florida as well as Delray Beach and all the other aforementioned tournaments. I also intend to attend a couple of the U.S. Challenger events that are at least somewhat nearby: Knoxville, Charlotteville, Cruella de Ville – one of the ‘villes, anyway. And perhaps Sunrise, too.
Although I follow top-tier tennis as closely as anyone, on both the men’s and women’s tours, I’ll only be focusing on men’s Challenger and Futures tour tennis here. As I mentioned earlier, there are a billion places you can read about the top-level action (give or take), so I won’t be adding to the glut of coverage there. And I’m choosing to focus on men’s tennis primarily because it’s what I play and know better, but also because I need to limit the scope of this project from a time-and-work perspective. It’ll be enough work to keep up with the three to five Challenger events every week, not to mention the many more Futures tourneys which happen concurrently. So, apologies to those who are looking for women’s ITF coverage here.
I’ll keep the comments section open on this page if anyone wants to offer suggestions and requests about what they’d like me to cover, as well as ideas to improve this site. Thanks for reading!