The ATP Challenger Tour has long been an essential breeding ground for the game’s future stars to gain experience and make their initial professional breakthrough.
The Challenger Tour has also proven to be a great stepping stone for college players who have ambitions of turning their dreams into reality, like Ben Shelton, who won three consecutive Challenger titles to finish this past season and was a quarter-finalist at this year’s Australian Open.
The former University of Florida standout, who captured the 2022 NCAA singles title, is just one rising star whose roots are in collegiate tennis. Since Shelton claimed his college crown, the 20-year-old has made quick progress at the pro level.
The #NextGenATP star became the fifth player to win the NCAA Singles Championship and a Challenger title in the same season, marking the first time since Steve Johnson in 2012. The lefty has continued to build upon his momentum and is at a career-high No. 41 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
“College tennis doesn’t always get the respect it deserves,” Shelton told ATPTour.com in July. “There’s a lot of really good talent in college tennis. It helps mature you and teaches you how to be a leader.”
Former University of Illinois standout Aleksandar Kovacevic has also seen his game translate well to the professional level since graduating in 2021. The American won his maiden Challenger Tour title this past week in Cleveland, Ohio and was a semi-finalist at last year’s ATP 250 event in Seoul, where he lost to eventual champion Yoshihito Nishioka.
Two years prior to winning the Cleveland Challenger, Kovacevic was a senior in college competing in several Challenger events across the United States. In 2021, he advanced through qualifying en route to a semi-final run in Cleveland (l. to Fratangelo). Little did he know that a couple of years later he would be back in Ohio, but this time lifting the trophy.
Aleksandar Kovacevic triumphs at the 2023 Cleveland Open. Credit: Ben Peskar
“I played a lot of pro tournaments my last season of college,” Kovacevic said. “It gave me a little bit of a cushion to make the jump to the pros. I was already ranked around 500 when I got out of college. Now after being on the pro tour for a bit, there [are] a lot of things I wish I knew even starting out on Tour, but a lot of it is a learning process and that’s okay.”
While nothing guarantees success, the college tennis path has worked for many players. Even legends like Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe tasted collegiate success before rising to the professional ranks. John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Rajeev Ram, Bob Bryan, Mike Bryan and Steve Johnson are more recent examples of student-athletes boasting a strong college career before breaking through on the ATP Tour.
Johnson, who turned pro in 2012, led the University of Southern California to four consecutive NCAA team titles and captured back-to-back singles crowns (2011, 2012). The American finished his college career on a 72-match winning streak.
“College tennis was instrumental in my growth as a tennis player and as a person,” Johnson said. “It gave me a chance to grow up, mature, and see what was important in my life. Without college tennis, I wouldn’t be here today and had the career I’ve had, I know that for sure. Peter Smith, George Husack, Brett Masi, those guys helped me along the way while I was at USC. They gave me the opportunities and abilities to learn on my own but also gave me all the guidance and gave me that push I needed.”
This season, the ATP announced a collaboration with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) to accelerate the professional development pathway for players in the American collegiate system.
Players ranked in the Top 20 of the ITA final singles rankings at the beginning of June, who have finished their education, will be granted up to eight ‘accelerator spots’ at Challenger 50 and 75 tournaments, with opportunities split between main draw (Top 10) and qualifying (11-20). Players who reach the quarter-finals or better of the individual NCAA Division I Tennis Championships will also qualify for the accelerator programme if not already eligible via their ITA ranking.
The ATP-ITA partnership allows more opportunities for college players to see how their game fits at the highest level of the sport. And history shows that the college tennis path has been a successful route for many accomplished players.
Stars On Importance Of College Tennis
William Blumberg, who was a 10-time ITA All-American at the University of North Carolina: “At 17 or 18 years old, you’re so young and immature and to have those resources and basically go to school for free if you’re a top junior… You get free coaching, two or three coaches, fitness, strength and conditioning, nutrition, all paid for and all in one place as well as being able to be a human being. If I could stay and never leave, I probably would’ve.”
Brandon Holt, four-time ITA All-American at the University of Southern California: “Going to college allowed me to get a lot stronger because you have a lot of time in the weight room. It’s kind of hard when you’re on Tour to get a good training block, so college is like four years of consistently working out. Also, there [are] coaches that have a four year plan with your game. They’re like, ‘This is the player we think you can become.’ Then they have years to progress you to that point. You show up every day and they have one goal to get better and closer to that goal. They have a tailored plan for every player and I think that’s huge.”
Former University of Kentucky standout and 2022 Granby Challenger champion Gabriel Diallo: “What’s great about college tennis is you have the opportunity to play a lot of matches. It’s kind of like playing Davis Cup every weekend. You play for your school and if you buy into that college atmosphere, you become part of something bigger, like for me, ‘Bleeding Blue’ and ‘Big Blue Nation’…It’s an experience you’ll never get on Tour.”
Gabriel Diallo claims his maiden Challenger title on home soil in Granby. Credit: Tennis Canada Media Centre