Joel Drucker: A Day at a Challenger Event

Were you a member or guest of the Tiburon Peninsula Club (TPC), you’d be delighted. TPC is located in Marin County, the affluent bedroom community just north of San Francisco. There’s a pool, a clubhouse, 12 well-maintained hard courts.

But were you a professional tennis player, you’d prefer to be in Chengdu or Shenzhen. Those two cities this week were hosting ATP World Tour events that collectively offered nearly $2 million in prize money and 250 ranking points to the winner. Meanwhile, TPC was host to the Tiburon Challenger, a tournament merely one peg off the main tour. But it’s a big peg – a total purse of $100,000 and 90 ranking points for the victor.

A month ago, 26-year-old American Tennys Sandgren had earned his way into the main draw of the US Open for the first time. He’d taken ’14 US Open champ Marin Cilic to four sets, earned $40,000 and by the end of the tournament reached a career high ranking of 98 in the world – incredibly skilled, but still not high enough to earn his way into main draws of ATP World Tour tournaments. The week after the US Open, Sandgren was off to a Challenger-level event in Cary, North Carolina, where he lost to 186th-ranked Cameron Norrie in three sets.

Now in Tiburon, he took on #210, Brayden Schnur, a 22-year-old Canadian. Makeshift bleachers and box seats had been fashioned around two courts at TPC. No more than ten people were watching Sandgren and Schnur warm up and start their match. Sandgren wore adidas shoes and Nike socks. As the points got underway, it was uncertain if Schnur was nervous, reckless or merely under-skilled. Striking shots long and wide, he dropped the first set 6-1 in less than a half hour.

Always at these tournaments, spectators engaged in the deep squint. What separated these players from those in the top 100? Was there something technical? “It’s all mental,” commented one fan. What does that mean? Isn’t everything, including technique, mental? Or were we engaged in some sort of observational process that automatically made it easy to detect each player’s shortcomings? Sandgren and Schnur were both practitioners of contemporary ball-striking, each taking massive cuts at the ball in a rather violent manner. Schnur settled down in the second set, extending it to a tiebreaker before losing it 7-5. His reward: $1,720 and eight ranking points.

Next came a match of more intrigue. Mackenzie McDonald had grown up in Northern California and gone on to win the NCAA singles and doubles titles at UCLA. This week he’d reached a career-high ranking of 196 in the world. At the age of 22, McDonald probably had two to three years to make a go at a double-digit ranking, surely cause for optimism.

It was a different view for McDonald’s opponent. As recently as May of 2016, Denis Kudla had been ranked 53 in the world. In 2015, he’d reached the round of 16 at Wimbledon, along the way taking out a future star, Alexander Zverev. But 2016 had been cruel, Kudla unable to win two consecutive matches at an ATP World Tour event. He’d tumbled out of the top 100. Nearly a year prior to Tiburon, he’d lost to McDonald – then ranked 371 -- in the quarters of a Challenger event in Stockton, California. Kudla then had been ranked 141. Now he was 166, even more feeling like hunted than hunter. And to think, he was still just 25, a mere three years older than McDonald.

Indeed, there is something ruthlessly quantitative about the Challenger tour – rankings, prize money, points, age. All of these factor into a player’s identity. Day after day in this world, he’s aware of where he stands. Unless a player goes quite far in these events – at least the semis – his progress is tortoise-like.

As Kudla and McDonald got underway at 3:00 p.m. – with now nearly 100 people watching -- it was tempting to look at Kudla and imagine his annoyance at having to compete at this level. This was a man who’d been named to the US Olympic team, who’d reached the second week of a major. But once the match got underway, none of that mattered. It was just a tennis match. Kudla had more power, McDonald more versatility. Each stands under six feet tall, a sign that to progress further each will require exceptional skill at all the intangibles – speed, fitness, tactical acumen, mental toughness (exhibit A: David Goffin). The first set went to a tiebreaker. Leading 2-1, Kudla played three poor points – a weakly-executed forehand volley, a forehand into the net, another long. But it remained tight, until at 6-all, Kudla double-faulted and was late with a forehand. McDonald then sprinted through the second set, 6-2.

Sandgren, Schnur, Kudla, McDonald were four excellent players. It had been just another Thursday at an event none of them hoped to ever play again. What would keep them away from Tiburon – or return them to Tiburon – would likely always be a mystery.

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