Take a look at Wednesday’s schedule at Roland Garros and one thing immediately jumps off the page. Past champions Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are in action, but who are their opponents?
Dig a little deeper and the same question could be asked of half the Top 10 seeds, including Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Karen Khachanov. While you might not be familiar with the players standing on the other side of the net, they have certainly been garnering plenty of attention on the ATP Challenger Tour this year.
In fact, the five opponents have one thing in common: they all won their first Grand Slam matches this week. With Yannick Maden battling Nadal, Oscar Otte clashing with Federer, Mikael Ymer facing Zverev, Hugo Dellien dueling with Tsitsipas and Gregoire Barrere meeting Khachanov, the stars of the Challenger circuit will have their say on one of the game’s biggest stages.
For players competing at the Challenger level, these moments are their big opportunity to showcase their talents in front of a global audience. Maden, Otte, Dellien, Ymer and Barrere have all been successfully plotting their ascent towards the Top 100 and beyond this year. And this is another important step in the process.
Challenger Stars In Paris
|Player||ATP Ranking||2019 W-L
||2019 Best Results|
|Hugo Dellien||No. 86||10-3||Santiago title|
|Yannick Maden||No. 114||15-8||Drummondville & Lille finals|
|Gregoire Barrere||No. 127||21-7||Quimper & Lille titles|
|Oscar Otte||No. 144||25-15||Yokohama & Francavilla finals|
|Mikael Ymer||No. 148||18-6||Noumea title|
When Barrere first entered Roland Garros as a main draw competitor, it was 2016. The Frenchman was thrust into the spotlight on Court One against 12th seed David Goffin. It was the first tour-level match of his career, and he is the first to admit that it did not go according to plan.
Flash forward three years and the 25-year-old is now armed with a stronger all-around game and a firmer belief in his abilities. The rest of the tour is beginning to take notice. The Frenchman’s career trajectory has taken a circuitous route, as the once-thriving Top 200 prospect endured a slip to No. 624 in the ATP Rankings just last year.
In search of his game and much-needed confidence, everything changed when he stepped onto the home hard courts of Lille as a qualifier and emerged as an ATP Challenger Tour champion for the first time. One year later and Barrere is playing the best tennis of his career and soaring towards a Top 100 breakthrough.
On Tuesday, the Charenton-le-Pont native – located just 20 minutes from Roland Garros – finally celebrated his moment in the spotlight at his home Grand Slam, ousting Matthew Ebden 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 for his first major victory. For Barrere, it wasn’t just an ordinary win on Court 14, rather the culmination of a year of hard work on the Challenger circuit.
One of the top performers on the tour in 2019, Barrere is tied for fifth among win percentage leaders with a 21-7 record (.750). A pair of titles in nearby Quimper and Lille have seen him surge to a career-high of No. 117, and he is now on the precipice of climbing even higher. Victory over 10th seed Khachanov on Thursday would assure him of that.
“I still have 10 years ahead of me, so I take it step by step,” said Barrere. “I would like to get into the Top 100 very soon. That’s the objective of the season. Of course, if I enter the Top 100 in two weeks, in two months, that’s not my objective. I just try to progress on a daily basis to put everything together and then the ranking has to follow.”
Barrere is not the only player to celebrate his first Grand Slam victory this week. In fact, a staggering 12 competitors have secured the milestone with an opening-round triumph at Roland Garros. That’s the most at the same slam since 2001 in Paris. While some have already established themselves on the ATP Tour this year, including two-time champ Cristian Garin, Cordoba winner Juan Ignacio Londero and Indian Wells quarter-finalist Miomir Kecmanovic, this marks a potentially career-changing achievement for the nine others.
Barrere, Dellien, Maden, Otte, Ymer, Elliot Benchetrit, Salvatore Caruso, Lloyd Harris and Antoine Hoang all tasted victory for the first time on the Grand Slam stage. But these moments don’t appear out of thin air. For many, like Barrere, they have been building to this on the Challenger circuit.
Ymer is also Top 5 in win percentage this year, and in addition to lifting his maiden trophy in Noumea, the #NextGenATP Swede reached a pair of clay-court finals last month in Murcia and Bordeaux. Maden and Otte have also reached multiple finals this year, while Dellien claimed his fourth title on the clay of Santiago, Chile. And Caruso earned arguably the biggest scalp of the year with a comeback win over World No. 21 David Goffin in Phoenix.
In February, Antoine Hoang earned his first ATP Tour match win in Montpellier, the week after reaching his third Challenger final at the presitigious Open de Rennes. Now inside the Top 150 and climbing, he believes that Tuesday’s four-set victory over Damir Dzumhur is the culmination of everything he’s been fighting for.
“I did everything to have this result,” Hoang said. “It’s a lot of pleasure and satisfaction. I’ve been expecting this for a long time. I’ve been practising for this result. I’m relieved. But the show must go on, and I hope that it will go as long as possible. The aim is to be part of the Top 100 by the end of the year.”
Hoang will look to the home crowd for more support when he faces 23rd-seed Fernando Verdasco on Thursday.
As you’re watching the action unfold in the coming days, keep an eye out for these emerging talents. There’s a strong chance you’ll be seeing more of them in the near future.