November 15, 2011

Celebrating the Other Guys

It's about time players who spend their days and weeks slogging away on the Challenger Tour get their due.

With all the attention paid to the professional Tour -- the Slams, especially -- it's easy to miss the successes on the second tier circuit. But this year, for the first time, the ATP is celebrating just those athletes with the inaugural Challenger Tour Finals which kicks off Wednesday in Sao Paulo.

Portugal's Rui Machado leads the field in Brazil. Though he literally won just a handful of matches in ATP events -- his best result was a quarterfinal appearance in Costa do Sauipe -- he did earn himself four Challenger titles and climbed as high as #59 in the world in October. In the same round robin group is former top-thirty player Dudi Sela, struggling to regain the traction he found two years back, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, on the verge of cracking into double-digit rankings after starting the year at #404, and Matthias Bachinger, a quarterfinalist in Bangkok and a titleist in Athens.

A second group of matches -- the "Grupo Verde" -- is headlined by wildcard Thomaz Bellucci. He's dropped a bit in the rankings since peaking at #21 in 2010, but with two ATP titles to his name, he's clearly the most experienced of the bunch. Slovakia's Martin Klizan only played six matches all year on the main Tour, but claimed his second Challenger title in Genova in September. Germany's Andreas Beck, once ranked #33 in the world, and American veteran Bobby Reynolds, winless in the ATP but a winner of two Challengers, round out the section.

Brazil's Bellucci may be the on-paper favorite to take the title, but if this year has taught us anything, it's that pretty much anything can happen. With the encouragement of their own year-end title, whoever wins the championship could ride the momentum and make even bigger strides on the main Tour -- and an even more successful 2012.

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