Yen Hsun Lu has played in a lot of tournaments with fields that look like this month’s Leon and Guadalajara Challengers. Ranked in the bottom half of the top 100, he is often the only top-100 player in the draw. In fact, he has been the top seed in every Challenger he’s played for more than a year.
Top seeded or not, Lu seems to really like Challengers. When other players at his level are contesting ATP 250s or Masters-level qualifying draws, the Taiwanese #1 is demonstrating his dominance of the minor leagues. And it’s working: In large part thanks to titles in places such as Shanghai, Ningbo, Seoul, and Singapore, he has kept his ranking in the top 100 for about three years.
Lu’s combination of consistency near the top and Challenger preference is unusual but not unique. He is one of 14 players who, since 2007, have played at least 20 Challenger events while ranked inside the top 100. He is, however, the most extreme member of the group. This week’s Guadalajara event will be his 40th Challenger as a member of the top 100. Dudi Sela, also in Guadalajara but currently outside the top 100, has played 31 while part of that more elite club.
Almost every week of the season, there is some tour-level event, and usually, anyone in the top 100 would make the cut for qualifying, if not necessarily the main draw. But for Lu, the ATP option isn’t always so inviting. He hates clay, with only two career wins on the surface, one of which was twelve years ago in a Davis Cup Group 2 tie against Pakistan. (No, not against Qureshi. He lost to Qureshi.) Despite five entries and a valiant effort in a fifth-set, 11-9 defeat against Jeremy Chardy last year, he has never won a match at Roland Garros.
While Sela has a longer track record (and a bit more success) on dirt, his current preferences are very similar. Given the choice between a hard-court Challenger and anything on clay, and he’ll take the Challenger. While there aren’t as many tour-level events on clay as Rafael Nadal might like, there are enough to keep Lu and Sela on the lower circuit for several months of the year.
Most of the other players who rack up extensive Challenger records while ranked in the top 100 have the opposite preference. Filippo Volandri and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo are the most extreme. While ranked that high, each has only played three ATP qualifying events, despite entering 29 and 27 Challenger events, respectively, since 2007. (RRH’s career figures are higher; I’m using the time span since 2007 because my qualifying database only goes back that far.)
Here’s the list of all players who have contested 20 or more Challengers while ranked in the top 100 since 2007, along with the number of ATP qualifying draws they entered while in the top 100 and the rate at which they chose Challengers out of these two options.
Player CHs Qs CH+Qs CH/CH+Q Yen Hsun Lu 38 10 48 79% Dudi Sela 30 6 36 83% Filippo Volandri 29 3 32 91% Carlos Berlocq 29 5 34 85% Michael Russell 28 25 53 53% Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo 27 3 30 90% Frederico Gil 26 12 38 68% Daniel Gimeno Traver 26 21 47 55% Nicolas Mahut 22 7 29 76% Oscar Hernandez 22 8 30 73% Pere Riba 22 11 33 67% Tobias Kamke 22 18 40 55% Diego Junqueira 21 2 23 91% Olivier Rochus 21 11 32 66%