The best players don’t take long before they show you how good they are. Tennis fans are rightfully excited about guys like Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic, youngsters who have already established themselves at ATP level–if they are this good at 18, or 21, imagine how good they will be.
I’m always looking for ways to quantify that promise. In the past, I’ve focused on the rankings, noticing that nearly everyone who reached #1 had broken into the top 100 before their 19th birthday. Another angle is to see how long a player lasts at the challenger level.
The best players seem to skip the challenger level altogether. It’s a bit like baseball players and Triple-A: some prospects are ready for the big time, so they never play in the highest level of the minor leagues. Roger Federer only played eight events in his challenger career, Nadal played 12, and Djokovic played 11–out of which he won three titles. Andy Roddick also won three challenger titles in only six events at that level.
A player can only move so quickly if they gain entry to tour-level events and they take advantage of the opportunities. Roddick won 20 matches as a wild card in 2001. Djokovic reached the third round of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on his first try. A few accomplishments like that, plus the points from a couple of challenger titles, and you’re ranked in the top 100, good enough to earn direct entry into most ATP events. That’s essentially what happened to Milos Raonic after he reached the fourth round in Melbourne last year.
This suggests a new type of filter to separate the prospects from the wannabes. If someone takes two years to consistently go deep at challenger events and fails to make an impact at the ATP level, they probably aren’t headed for the top 10. But if someone gets into the top 50 or 60 with only a couple dozen challengers in their past, they just might be something special.
I investigated the challenger careers of everyone currently in the ATP top 100. Eight of the ten guys who played the fewest challengers are (in order): Roddick, Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Djokovic, Nadal, Gael Monfils, Andy Murray, and Juan Monaco.
The other two? Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic, who played 16 and 18 challengers, respectively. Other prospects in the same range are Kei Nishikori (22), Cedrik-Marcel Stebe (25), and Ryan Harrison (28). While Stebe and Harrison may play a few more, they still haven’t reached the totals of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (29), Richard Gasquet (32), or David Ferrer (34). Nikolay Davydenko spent even longer (41 events) on the challenger tour before beginning his ascent to world #3.
More than half of the top 100 played at least 50 challengers, and that’s generally the half you don’t want to be in. The most promising career trajectory for challenger vets is that of Janko Tipsarevic, who played 89 challengers (winning 10) before putting it all behind him. Most of the men near him on the list (Tobias Kamke, 88; Andreas Beck, 90; Dudi Sela, 90) can only dream of doing so well.
With a few exceptions like Tipsarevic (and Monaco, who largely skipped the challenger tour but hasn’t become a consistent threat on tour), this is a filter with some potential. It overlaps quite a bit with age–if you see a 20-year-old in the top 100, he probably hasn’t played nearly as many challengers as a 27-year-old who finally broke in. Where “number of challengers” might trump age is when comparing players who–for reasons that may not be purely attributable to talent–started playing professionally at much different times. John Isner, for example, has only played 20 challengers, but didn’t break into the top 100 until he was nearly 23. His advanced age would have told us he had little potential while hiding the fact he spent years playing college tennis. The length of his challenger tour career indicates that once he went pro, it wasn’t long before he was ready to play with the big boys.
Whichever metric (age or challenger experience) you prefer, it’s tough to get excited about someone like Alex Bogomolov Jr., who was 28 when he first cracked the top 100, after a career including 151 challengers. Among the current top 100, only Michael Russell and Ricardo Mello have played more. Another man with little promise is (I’m sad to say) Flavio Cipolla, 28 years old and #75 in the world. The Italian has played 136 challengers and won only 51% of his matches in those events.
Another lesson from these numbers is that you can watch a whole lot of challenger-level matches without seeing any real prospects. (That isn’t to say that Kenny de Schepper versus Michael Yani isn’t entertaining. It is.) If future top-tenners play only a handful of challenger events, your average player in a challenger is a guy whose best hope is a peek into the top 50. Or–if you’re lucky–Janko Tipsarevic.