For the next fortnight, all eyes will be on the stars of the ATP Tour as they battle for the coveted champions’ trophy at the Australian Open. But there are many players who are flying under the radar and could make a splash at Melbourne Park. The first Grand Slam of the year provides fresh opportunities for everyone in the draw, especially those who have plotted their ascent on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2019.
There are plenty of questions to be answered over the next 14 days and the stakes couldn’t be higher. For those rising the ATP Rankings on the Challenger circuit, a berth in a Grand Slam main draw is a significant prize. A platform to showcase their skills and eventually take the next step on the ATP Tour, it presents a huge opportunity on a global stage.
A strong performance at the Australian Open can prove to be career-altering for many Challenger stars, as they target the Top 100 and beyond. So, which players are poised to wreak havoc on the draw? We look at five to watch Down Under…
Tallon Griekspoor (NED)
Of the 16 players to emerge from qualifying, six are making their Grand Slam debuts at the Australian Open. Welcome to the big show, Tallon Griekspoor, Mario Vilella Martinez, Mohamed Safwat, Daniel Elahi Galan, Max Purcell and Alejandro Tabilo.
Few are as prepared for the bright lights of a Grand Slam as the emerging Dutch star Griekspoor. After claiming his first Challenger title in 2018, the Haarlem native made his mark with a standout 2019 campaign.
In back-to-back years, Griekspoor earned standout upset victories over Stan Wawrinka and Karen Khachanov at his home ATP 500 event in Rotterdam. His mettle tested, both Top 20 wins came from a set down, delighting the home faithful with a pair of heoric performances. In fact, the victory over Khachanov propelled him to greater heights as 2019 progressed.
A career-high of No. 161 in the FedEx ATP Rankings would come on the heels of a final run at the Challenger event in Tampere and title in Banja Luka. Boasting an aggressive mentality and strong baseline game, the 23-year-old is looking to guide Dutch tennis into the new decade. After not dropping a set in qualifying, he will make his Grand Slam debut on Tuesday against 29th seed Taylor Fritz.
Corentin Moutet (FRA)
If his results at the season-opening ATP 250 event in Doha are any indication of his 2020 form, it looks like Moutet’s Challenger days are numbered. The 20-year-old stormed to his first ATP Tour final as a qualifier, dominating the Qatar ExxonMobil Open with breakthrough wins over Milos Raonic, Fernando Verdasco and Stan Wawrinka. It was quite the impressive start to the season for one of 2019’s top Challenger stars.
Up to a career-high No. 70 in the ATP Rankings, the #NextGenATP Frenchman is carrying the momentum from a string of strong performances on the ATP Challenger Tour last year. Moutet rose the ranks behind title runs on the hard courts of Chennai and clay of Lyon, semi-finals in Rennes, St. Brieuc and Tallahassee, as well as a runner-up finish in Samarkand.
His 29-14 record saw him crack the Top 100 for the first time and he didn’t stop there. At the ripe age of 20, Moutet already has plenty of Grand Slam experience as he enters Melbourne Park. Not only did he reach the third round at Roland Garros, but he followed that with an opening victory over Grigor Dimitrov at Wimbledon.
Moutet will need to channel that experience at the Australian Open, opening against Marin Cilic on Court 5 on Monday. Auckland finalist Benoit Paire and ninth seed Roberto Bautista Agut are also in his immediate section of the draw.
Dennis Novak (AUT)
Just like Moutet, Novak is riding a wave of momentum as he kicks off his campaign Down Under. With former Top 10 doubles star Julian Knowle in his corner, the Austrian is peaking at the right time to open the new season.
It did not take long for Novak to make his Top 100 debut in 2020, joining the club with an upset of Guido Pella at the ATP Cup in Sydney. And from there, with a shiny new position of No. 99 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, he stormed through qualifying at the Australian Open without dropping a set.
Ever since his initial splash at Wimbledon in 2018, reaching the third round as a qualifier, Novak has been pushing towards his big breakthrough. Last year, the 26-year-old lifted his first ATP Challenger Tour trophy in Taipei, reached a final on grass in Ilkley and added a second crown on the indoor hard courts of Bratislava. It was all part of a 27-14 campaign that saw him catapult up the FedEx ATP Rankings.
Novak opens against Hubert Hurkacz on Court 19 on Monday. It will be their first encounter since the Pole prevailed at the Challenger in Budapest in 2018. The winner will face either Aussie John Millman or Auckland champion Ugo Humbert.
Christopher O’Connell (AUS)
The 25-year-old O’Connell has always dreamed of playing on home soil at the Australian Open. Being drawn to open against the hottest player on the planet in Andrey Rublev? Well that’s a different story.
The in-form Aussie will be thrown into the fire against the red-hot Rublev on Tuesday, but he’s no stranger to tough draws in Melbourne. Three years ago, O’Connell made his Grand Slam debut here against Grigor Dimitrov, succumbing in straight sets. The Sydney native is a completely different player now and if his 2019 results are a harbinger of things to come, we should be in for a thrilling opening encounter.
For many years, O’Connell was battling outside the Top 200 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, grinding on the ITF circuit and ATP Challenger Tour. And in 2018, the 25-year-old Aussie took up a second job cleaning boats while recovering from a knee injury. But perseverance pays off and that is certainly applicable for the Sydneysider.
From not having an ATP Ranking to open the 2019 season to sitting at a career-high No. 116 one year later, O’Connell made the most of his opportunities. After reaching nine finals on the ITF circuit from March to July, he took the next step and lifted his first Challenger trophy on the clay of Cordenons. And he was not done there, advancing to three more finals and adding another trophy in Fairfield. There, he earned his first Top 100 win in three years, upsetting Steve Johnson in the championship match. With a surge of momentum at his back, the upstart Aussie has his sights firmly set on the Top 100 and beyond in 2020.
Tommy Paul (USA)
The 22-year-old Paul is finally putting it all together. After enjoying a dominant 2019 campaign, the American launched the new decade with a first ATP Tour semi-final appearance in Adelaide, not dropping a set en route to the last four.
Up to No. 90 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, Paul is hoping his Challenger days are behind him after appearing in his first Australian Open main draw. He opens against Leonardo Mayer on Monday and could face 18th seed Grigor Dimitrov in the second round.
One year ago, the North Carolina native was sitting outside the Top 200 and unable to get through qualifying in Melbourne. What a difference 12 months make. In fact, it was in April that Paul was at No. 204 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, but that would spark a sensational surge and newfound belief in the American.
Of all players with at least 30 Challenger matches played in 2019, no one had fewer losses than Paul. He posted a staggering 30-5 record and finished in second place among win percentage leaders (.857), only behind Ricardas Berankis (.889).
Behind a mature approach and more determined attitude, the 22-year-old stepped up under pressure. A first clay-court title in Sarasota was followed by victories in New Haven and Tiburon. It was in New Haven that Paul cracked the Top 100 for the first time, eventually peaking at No. 79 in the ATP Rankings.
Five More To Watch…
-Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (ESP): The Spaniard couldn’t have asked for a better finish to 2019, lifting his second Challenger trophy, cracking the Top 100 and appearing at the Next Gen ATP Finals – all in the final weeks of the season. Now, Davidovich Fokina is set to make his Australian Open debut against Norbert Gombos on Court 10 on Monday. The World No. 85 could face 14th seed Diego Schwartzman in the second round.
-James Duckworth (AUS): The Aussie is looking towards a successful 2020 on the ATP Tour after dominating the Challenger circuit last year. The match wins and titles leader found his way back to the Top 100 after undergoing foot, shoulder and elbow surgeries. Determined to earn his spot in the Australian Open main draw without a wild card, he lifted the trophy in Pune to cap the 2019 season. The home hope opens against Aljaz Bedene on Tuesday.
-Marcos Giron (USA): Sitting at No. 112 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, the American is eyeing a long-awaited Top 100 breakthrough. He enters on the heels of a title run in Houston to finish 2019 and semi-final finish in Bendigo to open 2020. Philipp Kohlschreiber awaits in the first round.
-Max Purcell (AUS): With countryman Luke Saville, the duo accounted for a tour-leading seven Challenger doubles titles in 2019. And they kicked off 2020 with a crown at the Canberra International. But Purcell is not a doubles specialist. The 21-year-old Sydney native is enjoying great success in singles as well. He will make his Grand Slam debut against Jannik Sinner after emerging from qualifying.
-Mohamed Safwat (EGY): At the age of 29, Safwat is the first Egyptian to feature in the Australian Open main draw since 1978. He will open against Gregoire Barrere after earning three straight-set wins in qualifying to punch his ticket. A runner-up in Helsinki to conclude 2019, it was his third Challenger final.