Challengers: Could Zendaya’s tennis husband hack the ATP Challenger Tour?


While the best tennis players in the world battle in one of the year’s most important tournaments in Madrid, the sport’s parallel universes align.

A whole bunch of top players are battling in the equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues in another part of Spain, in Italy and in France. They are playing Challengers.

You know where this is going.

There’s this tennis movie that isn’t really a tennis movie called “Challengers,” in which Zendaya stars as Tashi Donaldson. She’s the wife and coach of one of the world’s best players, but she was once the next big thing.

Then she got hurt and had to settle for coaching her partner to the top. 

Now he’s in a slump ahead of the U.S. Open. So she gets him to sign up for the Phil’s Tire Town Challenger tournament, where they go up against her husband’s former best friend, who was also once Tashi’s boyfriend.

There’s some history there. Let’s leave it at that.

While basically everyone leaves the theater thinking about love triangles and threesomes, tennis head minds drift to the dynamics of their sport, where top players really do show up in the tournaments which are, on paper, below their standing in the global game.

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Friday, May 3, Tomas Martin Etcheverry of Argentina, a top 30 player who nobody wants to face during the first week of a Grand Slam, was taking on world No 77 Arthur Rinderknech of the Netherlands at a Challenger tournament in Aix-En Provence in France.

Days before, Etcheverry had lost to Canada’s Denis Shapovalov in Madrid.

Frances Tiafoe, a second-round loser to Pedro Cachin of Argentina (the guy who asked Nadal for his shirt after their match two days later), was trying to grind out wins at the Sardegna Open in Cagliari. It didn’t go well for the 2022 U.S. Open semi-finalist, who was the top seed but lost 6-1, 7-5 to Federico Coria.

Frances Tiafoe Sardegna Open scaled


Tiafoe in Sardinia, where his search for form floundered (Mike Lawrence/ATP Tour)

Italians Fabio Fognini — another former top 10 player — and Lorenzo Musetti, world No 29 in the rankings and a guy who is supposed to rival Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner in the future, were on home turf. On the women’s side, Emma Navarro, world No 23 and climbing but less than a week after a third-round loss in Madrid, was seeking form in Lleida, Spain, in the WTA quasi-equivalent of a Challenger, a “125 event”. 

This is happening a lot nowadays, even though the tournaments usually have all the glitz and glamor that Phil’s Tire Town offers — which is to say, none. Their appeal to these kinds of players is, instead, part necessity and part invention, going in tandem with the effort by the ATP and WTA to elevate the Masters 1000 tournaments, which are one level below a Grand Slam event.

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By expanding their draws and duration from a week to 12 days, the tours have sold more tickets and created more days of prime tournament television content. They have also poked some holes in top players’ schedules if they lose in early rounds.

Take Tiafoe, who showed up in Madrid the weekend before the midweek start of the tournament. Because the top 32 players get a first-round bye, he waited nearly a week to play his first match, which he lost to Cachin. His next scheduled tournament, the Italian Open, was still at least 10 days away. He was suddenly looking at a vacuum of a fortnight while 3,500 miles away from home. So off to Cagliari he went — with the luxury of a wildcard — along with mainstays like Musetti, compatriot Lorenzo Sonego, and fellow American Chris Eubanks.


The increasing frequency of this scenario creates a dilemma for the players who live these events. If players like Tiafoe et al miss the glamor of a roofed stadium, huge crowds or just somewhere to change that isn’t a portable toilet, then their opponents are trying for a taste of that rarefied air. Their routes in are winning — and winning a lot — on a Challenger Tour that is getting more and more competitive, or being blessed by the capricious wild-card system, whose sense of arbitrary glory is dimmed by a combination of soft nationalism, draw-stacking, and the influence of companies such as IMG, which both runs tournaments and represent talent.

Karue Sell, a tennis personality of some renown on YouTube who has returned to the pro game at 30 and is winning matches at the Porto Alegre Challenger in Brazil right now, says more wild cards should go to players who are in a rich vein of form on that tour, where the conditions (he’s not a fan of the balls in Brazil) and level of talent are a grind. Winning for two weeks is enough for a Grand Slam; why shouldn’t it be enough to get you into one?

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Bernard Tomic, the Australian hot-headed tennis enigma, raised some eyebrows a few years ago when he said that there was little difference between a player ranked 60th and another ranked 250th.

He would not find a lot of people arguing today, at least in the men’s game.

Top players can drop down with little friction and going the other way is not so easy, but that doesn’t mean the elite are having it their own way. Improved competition has made lesser players better and the margins between rankings smaller.

Dominic Thiem, the 2020 U.S. Open champion who has struggled to get through a recurring wrist injury and motivational challenges, has spent plenty of weeks trying to find form on the Challenger Tour. It’s not gone well. Thiem is 2-3 in three Challenger events since November. Naomi Osaka, another former Grand Slam champion, was applauded for dropping down to play a WTA 250 (not even a Challenger) in Rouen because it showed seriousness about winning matches, the implication being that she was giving herself a chance to beat some also-rans. She lost in the round of 32.

“Everybody is playing really good tennis nowadays,” said Thiago Monteiro, a 29-year-old Brazilian.

Monteiro should know. He has spent much of his career bouncing between Challenger tournaments and the ATP Tour. He recently lost twice in eight days to someone named Orlando Luz, a 26-year-old Brazilian currently 333rd in the rankings, who has never climbed higher than world No 272.

Then Monteiro beat Stefanos Tsitispas, the world No 7, in Madrid’s second round, even though Tsitsipas had just made the final in Barcelona after winning the Monte Carlo Masters. Tsitispas knew he’d let down his guard against someone hungry and capable. He had forgotten the any-given-day dynamic every tennis player must respect.

Monteiro Tsitsipas Madrid scaled


Monteiro’s win was his third against a top-10 player in his career (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Cachin, who beat Tiafoe then pushed Nadal to three sets, has had a similar trajectory to Monteiro, logging plenty of weeks at Challenger events across the world the past decade. He said the only real difference between solid ATP Tour players and those he faces in the Challenger events is consistency.

Plenty of players can raise their level for a set or three, or even five with a top player. They serve hard, rip forehands, and have moments of exquisite touch. They can look like superheroes on a practice court. But their bodies and brains don’t allow it day after day, tournament after tournament, year after year. 

“Can you be there all the time?” Cachin asked after his loss to Nadal. 

Most can’t, which is why they are eating bad food, staying in bad hotels and struggling to break even, knowing they might be one or two good weeks away from the big show. And nothing excites them more, Monteiro said, than when a top player shows up with his fancy bag and designer shirts, sleeves patched with the names of blue-chip companies. Here comes a chance to prove to themselves and the dozen or so people watching in the bleachers that they have the goods, at least for a few hours.

Monteiro said he has felt it from both sides, salivating at chances to play someone like Thiem on any court, at any time, while knowing that, as one of the top players in Brazil, he has a massive target on his back if he plays a home Challenger.

Didn’t do really well,” he said the other day in Madrid, still a bit haunted by the memory of losses in Sao Leo and Florianopolis in Brazil and Oeiras in Portugal.

“Everybody wants also to beat me.”

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures; Mike Lawrence/ATP Tour)





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