The high quality of players at this week’s $75,000 ATP Challenger—think AAA baseball for tennis— in Tallahassee, Florida was on display before the main portion of the event even began.
American Sebastian Korda, the top-ranked junior in world and son of 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda, lost an opening round qualifying match to a 33-year-old player ranked No. 328 in the world who moonlights as the captain of his country’s Davis Cup team.
At 17, Korda is the same age that Michael Chang and Boris Becker were when each won his first Grand Slam title. But on Saturday, Korda could only muster six games in a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Canadian Frank Dancevic. Korda recently claimed the Australian Open junior boy’s singles title, a markedly easier achievement, it seems, than winning a Challenger with a 32-man draw.
Such is modern professional tennis, with its spin-laden balls coming off polyester string-filled rackets. Held by men, not boys.
A ‘bridge’ to the big-time
With most of the top 100 ranked players already in Europe getting ready for next month’s French Open, the Tallahassee Challenger is the premier men’s event in the U.S. this week. Players include young guns and grizzled veterans, with most ranked between 100 and 300 in the world.
All have aspirations to play in the Grand Slams, and the vast majority use Challenger-level tournaments—not junior events—as the means to get there.
“The ATP has a great program with the Challengers to really help players break into the top 50 and as a stepping stone to tour-level events,” said 20 year-old American Michael Mmoh in a phone interview with SI.com last week.
Mhoh is currently ranked No. 144 in the world and is seeded fourth in Tallahassee. His ranking has improved each of the past four years. Mmoh’s father, Tony, is also a former professional tennis player.
Christian Harrison, 23, another American competing this week, agreed with Mmoh’s assessment of how success at Challengers can propel players to bigger and better things.
“Almost all players have used Challengers to break into the top 50,” Harrison told SI.com “There is no skipping steps.
“You have to be able to win at the Challenger level to break through [to the top 50].”
After a two-plus year break due to injuries, Harrison is currently ranked No. 238 in the world. Prior to several surgeries, Harrison teamed up with his brother Ryan in doubles and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2013. He won two lower level Futures tournaments—a step below the Challengers—last year and has seen his world ranking rise steadily.
Alumni making good
Two recent alums of the Tallahassee Challenger—Frances Tiafoe and Jared Donaldson—are now ranked among the top 65 players in the world after multiple stops in Florida’s capital the past few years.
Tiafoe recently claimed his maiden ATP title at the event in Delray Beach.
“I am not surprised at all that Frances is doing so well,” said Karen Vogter, the Tallahassee tournament director since 2004. “I think he has the right attitude to be a champion.”
In addition to Michael Mmoh, Christian Harrison, and Sebastian Korda, a handful of other Americans—all under the age of 27—are in Tallahassee this week too.
Americans Denis Kudla and Evan King are both seeded in the main draw. Noah Rubin and Mitchell Krueger had high enough rankings to skip the qualifying rounds, too. Trent Bryde—an 18 year old headed to the University of Georgia in the fall—won two qualifying matches over the weekend to earn a spot in the main draw. Other Americans playing this week include wild card entries J.C. Aragone and Jared Hiltzik, both former college players.
An eye for American tennis talent
After 14 years at the helm of the Challenger event, tournament director Karen Vogter has seen hundreds of young Americans play on the courts at Tallahassee’s largest public tennis court complex.
In terms of top-20 potential, one player Vogter has watched over the years stood out above all others, literally: John Isner.
“He had the most amazing serve I had ever seen, and I’ve seen Ivo Karlovic and Pete Sampras,” Vogter told SI.com. “Players have made whole careers out of a serve like that, but he was also smart, thoughtful, composed, and educated.”
Isner—who is about 6’10” and turns 33 this week—won the Tallahassee Challenger title in 2009.
“You could see he was a cut above the rest of the competition that year,” Vogter said. “And while it has taken longer than I thought, I think he is playing some of his best tennis ever now.”
Last month, Isner beat three top-10 players and claimed the biggest title of his career at the Masters 1000-level Miami Open. Isner is now ranked no. 9 in the world.
If a young American wins the Tallahassee Challenger this week, he too will be hoping for Isner-like success in the near-future.