On the Road: A Challenger’s Life is Never Easy
Stephan Fogleman, Tennis East Coast
I’ve never been to the early rounds of an ATP Challenger before. In fact, my only experience with a Challenger was traveling to Charlottesville to catch the late rounds of the same event last year. I took in the first round on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
All I can say is, if Henry David Thoreau were alive today, he’d find all the tranquility and solitude he ever needed at the first round of an ATP Challenger.
Aside from the deafening silence, your senses are treated to a teeming mass of bodies and bags. It’s like 100 homeless flash-mobbers showed up to your country club. The players, although they hit and train some of the time, spend most of their days sitting around, waiting to get on court and trying desperately to stave off boredom.
Some do it by surfing their phones all afternoon. Many actually talk on those same phones, too. Players of shared nationalities often becomes soul mates. And all the while, you’ve got good troop leaders like Ilona Young, the mother of Donald Young, to keep things classy.
The talk often centers on the nearest laundromat and the quality of the food at the facility that the players are forced to eat by default. They also speak of whether they’re staying in a hotel or with a local family. It’s clear that the players who stay with families often have a better experience in these locales. They get to experience the power of human interaction, a real home, a refrigerator full of food and access to all of the convenience items they so desperately miss on the road. Like the Tennis Channel.
The Charlottesville challenger is played at the Boar’s Head Sports Club in Charlottesville Virginia. It’s an indoor facility and that’s good for the players, because there they have access to the Tennis Channel.
The Tennis Channel is a lifeline for these guys. In addition to giving them encouragement for their future careers by watching top-ranked players in a Masters event thousands of miles away, it gives them something to talk about. There was a lot of buzz during the Paire-Herbert match on Monday from Paris. The young players were thrilled that wild card Herbert was giving Paire a run for his money. Many of these players in Charlottesville had played Herbert in futures events this past summer. It’s obvious that they were rooting for one of their own.
I can’t imagine what it must be like in some of the less luxurious venues that host these events. Some of these places don’t even have cable television. Some of these places don’t even have very good phone reception or Wi-Fi.
The one thing that most challenger or future events lack are fans.
During the first couple days of such a tournament, it is rare to find a person at the event who is not in some way related to the players, professionally, romantically or hereditarily. Tennis, as a sport, uses a lot of officials. The officials, the players and their coaches seem to make up about 98% of the people in attendance on any given day.
The players all say that they appreciate fan support and I believe that is never more true than at a challenger event.
I watched Tennys Sandgren fumble through his comically-oversized racket bag for something like 15 minutes just to find some headphones. Sandgren later told me that his bag is like a dresser. A big floppy vinyl dresser. And the compartments are like drawers.
It’s an amazingly unglorious life on a quest to reach the pinnacle of their professions. The only thing less glamorous might be serving as a line judge. Or the glorified line judge known as the Challenger Supervisor.
So this is living the dream.
For many, it’s the closest thing that they will ever experience to tennis stardom. I am in awe of the men and women who play in these challenger and future events. While getting up every day and grinding it out is a Herculean accomplishment in itself, the real test of mettle for these players lies in the toils of life on the road.