All eyes are on Indian Wells this week, with seven of the top eight-ranked men in the world in the quarterfinals. (Oh, and one epic streak coming to an end.) Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find another ATP event in progress, this one under the guise of a Challenger tournament.
Because of Dallas’s timing in between the opening rounds of Indian Wells and the beginning of the Miami Masters, special rules apply to tournament entries. Higher-ranked players are able to make last-minute decisions to compete, hence the presence of the two top seeds, Marcos Baghdatis and Thomaz Bellucci. Many other tour-level pros choose to make the stop in Dallas to get a couple of matches under their belt to compensate for a disappointing showing in the California desert.
Measuring field quality is tricky, but here we’re not working with subtle differences. Here are some simple metrics we could use to the compare main draw strength of the 2500 or so Challenger events since 1991:
- Average ATP Rank. In Dallas this year, it’s 103, the best ever in a Challenger event. Second best is 109–that was the same event last year. Only eight Challengers have ever had an average rank below 130, and the average is a whopping 290.
- Median ATP Rank. Similar deal, without the risk of a few top players skewing the results. Dallas’s median is 90; last year it was 90.5–best and second-best ever. Only two others come in under 100, and the average is 239.
- 8th seed ATP Rank. I like this metric as it indicates the presumed quality of the quarterfinals–every guy in the last 8 is either this good or has to beat someone this good. Dallas’s 8-seed this year is #62 Lukas Rosol, the highest-ranked 8-seed ever in a challenger event. Second place, once again, is the same event last year, where #69 Lukas Lacko was seeded eighth. Only 18 events have ever had an 8-seed in the top 80, and the historical average is 180.
- Average seed ATP Rank. Another angle: here Dallas is ousted, coming in 3rd of the 2500 events, at 48. The 1991 Johannesburg Challenger (46.5) and 1994 Andorra Challenger (47.5) just barely beat it out. Only 17 events have had an average seed rank better than 60, and the average is 145.
- Number of top 50 players. Dallas is only the 3rd Challenger event to ever have five top 50 players, after 1991 Jo’burg and 2004 Dnepropetrovsk. Only 66 Challengers have ever had multiple top-50 competititors, and fewer than 1 in 10 Challengers have a single one. The average Challenger top seed is ranked #97.
- Number of top 75/100/125 players. 12 players in the main draw this week are ranked in the top 75, 18 in the top 100, and 25 in the top 125. All are either new records or tied with the old record. The average challenger event has 0.13 top-50s, 0.57 top-75s, 1.71 top 100’s, and 3.81 top 125’s.
The one way in which this week’s tournament in Dallas doesn’t rank amongst the best is by a more sophisticated approach, the one that I use in my Challenger strength report on TennisAbstract.com. By simulating the tournament draw several thousand times, we can estimate the likelihood of a certain level of player winning the event. For instance, had the 50th-best player in the world entered the Burnie or West Lakes Challenger this year, he would have had about a 25% chance of winning. But against the more competitive field in Quimper, that number drops to 12%–about the same as the 50th-best player’s chance in the unusually weak Los Angeles ATP event last year.
This week, Jurgen Melzer–ranked in the mid-40s on hard courts by my rating system–had a 9.3% chance of winning the title according to my pre-tourney simulations. (Go to the tournament forecast page and click ‘R32’ under the ‘Forecast’ header.) That puts Dallas comfortably among the top 10 toughest Challenger draws in the last year–and better than LA–but nowhere near the top.
It’s one thing to have a deep draw, but another thing entirely to have a tournament that is particularly hard to win. For the latter, an event needs one or two very highly-ranked players, like Marin Cilic at last year’s Dallas Challenger, or Fernando Verdasco in Prostejov last year. In theory, if not in practice, someone ranked in the top 20 should waltz to a title, offering an insurmountable obstacle to your typical Challenger-level player.
Dallas may not be the most difficult Challenger event to win, but by any measure of field quality and depth, it’s one of the very strongest in ATP history. The fans in Dallas are very fortunate this week.