The Challenger is just that — a challenge for Canadian tennis talents to make their mark in the sport.
Whether they’re on the rise or just breaking in, the Calgary National Bank Challenger gives Canucks — young and old, male and female — a tournament to build their resumé in hopes of becoming the country’s next big thing on the court.
“Guys that have done well in this tournament the last three years have now become top 50 and top 100 players on tour,” said tennis legend Daniel Nestor, the honorary chairman of the week-long event at the OSTEN & VICTOR Alberta Tennis Centre in southeast Calgary.
“So it’s a good stepping stone to break through to the top,” continued Nestor. “It’s nice to see more Canadians being able to do that.”
This year is no exception.
With a dozen Canadian men part of the ATP Challenger Tour side of the tourney, there’s plenty of home-country talent to take in at the ATC.
It begins with rising star Gabriel Diallo, of Montreal.
Especially with countrymen Vasek Pospisil and Alex Galarneau having withdrawn from The Challenger.
“Benoit Paire is here, and he’s a household name when it comes to pro tennis,” said Nestor of the veteran from France who won his 14th career Challenger event in July in San Benedetto, Italy. “He’s one of the most entertaining players, and he’s talented and charismatic. Paire’s been top 20 in the world. And that’ll be fun for the fans.
“Same with Joao Souza from Portugal. Maybe not as high as Parre, but he’s had a lot of success on tour.
“And I would say Diallo is next in line as far as entertainment value, for sure. I think he’s one of the favourites to win the tournament.”
Diallo, currently slotted No. 113 in the ATP Tour rankings, is seeded fourth among men here in The Challenger’s singles draw.
“He was instrumental in Canada qualifying for the Davis Cup again in September,” said Nestor of Diallo. “He did well here last year (falling in the semifinals). He’s got a huge game.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the final weekend again with the way he’s playing and with his confidence level. He’s a year more mature, and he beat Dan Evans at the National Bank Open in Toronto (in August). So he’s well on his way.”
So is Ontario’s Justin Boulais, a 22-year-old fresh off the singles win in the final — 3-6, 7-6 (1), 6-0 over United Kingdom’s Giles Hussey — at the Edmonton Challenger last week.
“He’s gaining a little bit of confidence from winning last week,” said Nestor, of the 731st-ranked NCAA Ohio State Buckeyes phenom. “Justin’s in that next group of guys trying to break into where Diallo and Galarneau are in that group of former college players.”
Another is Ontario’s Liam Draxl, a 21-year-old who’s ranked 430th and began play in The Challenger on Monday afternoon versus Belgium’s Kimmer Coppejans.
“He’s one of the top players in college over the last couple of years,” Nestor said of the NCAA Kentucky Wildcats talent. “He’s trying to make a name for himself in the pros.
“And (Toronto’s) Steven Diez (ranked 270th) is one of the Canadian hopefuls here. He has been around the Challenger scene for five to seven years now.”
Quebec’s 32-year-old Dan Martin, ranked 890th, joins Draxl as a wildcard in the men’s singles draw, while seven other fellow Canadians — Calgary’s Emmett Potter, Montreal’s Juan Carlos Aguilar, Toronto’s Jonathan Sorbo, Edmonton’s Kaeten Mehta, Toronto’s Kelsey Stevenson, Ontario’s Marko Stakusic and Quebec’s Nicaise Muamba — tried to join the main bracket through qualifying.
Potter, Mehta, Stevenson, Stakusic and Muamba all fell Sunday, while Sorbo lost his second match Monday.
Aguilar, however, did advance with a 6-4, 6-1 second-match win Monday over Hussey. The 24-year-old, who is ranked No. 317 in the ATP, now enters the main draw as one of the six qualifiers.
The main draws get underway Tuesday.
“We have a few guys who are trying to make a name for themselves at this level and a few guys who are trying to get to the top 200,” added Nestor. “And then in Diallo, you have a guy who is trying to get to where Vasek and Milos (Raonic) and Denis (Shapovalov) and Felix (Auger-Aliassime) are in Canadian tennis.
“So it’s different stages in the journey, and that’s what the Challengers are all about. These are great opportunities for players to try and win some matches.”
Sorbo, 24, lost his Monday match to 6-1, 6-1 to Spain’s Inaki Montes-De La Torre … Joining Aguilar and Montes-De La Torre as men’s qualifiers are United Kingdom’s Patrick Brady, France’s Enzo Wallart and American Ryan Seggerman … In ITF Women’s Pro Circuit qualifying action at The Challenger on Monday, Toronto’s Ellie Daniels faced American Allura Zamarripa, Regina’s Teah Chavez played France’s Caroline Romeo and Ontario’s Isabelle Boulais went up against American Sara Daavettila.