Pop quiz: Which member of the ‘Big Three’ played the fewest ATP Challenger Tour matches?
If you answered Roger Federer, you’d be correct. The Swiss played 23 Challenger-level matches, claiming one title. Rafael Nadal competed in 44 Challenger-level matches, collecting two titles. Novak Djokovic claimed three titles in his 36 Challenger-level matches.
Even the game’s greatest have used the Challenger Tour as a stepping stone towards the ATP Tour. There are no free handouts as every player looks to construct a professional career, working hard from week-to-week at Challengers across the world.
At the beginning of his illustrious career, Federer entered the Brest Challenger in 1999 as the World No. 66. He was a teenager trying to pave his path towards the highest level of professional tennis. It didn’t take him long.
“It was a big one,” Federer told ATPTour.com in 2019. “I ended up winning the whole tournament. I beat ‘The Beast’, Max Mirnyi, in the final. Because of that win, I ended up finishing the year around No. 65 in the world. It’s the only Challenger I ever won, so of course it’s memorable.”
In Federer’s eighth and final Challenger appearance, the-then 18-year-old collected the trophy for the loss of just one set and closing out the final against Mirnyi 7-6(4), 6-3.
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) September 15, 2022
The 1999 season was a notable time for the rising teen, who started that year ranked outside the Top 300 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. In April, he played his first Davis Cup match on home soil before making his Grand Slam debut the following month at Roland Garros, where he took down then-World No. 3 Patrick Rafter in four sets.
Soon after, the Basel native reached the semi-finals on the grass-courts of the 1999 Surbiton Challenger before receiving a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw, marking his debut at the All England Club. To finish the year, he collected his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in France.
“The Challenger Tour is a tricky Tour,” Federer said. “I don’t believe there’s a huge difference between the Challenger level and the ATP [Tour] level. The players play very, very well. The Challenger Tour really tests your spirits because they are usually in the smaller cities and they are harder to get to, so you really build thick skin and you have to be tough. You have to battle through some tough conditions. I admire the guys on the Challenger Tour a lot.”
Federer’s junior success proved that he had the potential to be a highly ranked professional player. In 1998, he claimed the Wimbledon boys’ singles and doubles titles (w/ Olivier Rochus). His career continued to look promising as he made a rapid rise from the Challenger Tour to the ATP Tour.
In 2000, Federer launched onto the ATP Tour, claiming a runner-up finish at the ATP events in Marseille and Basel before winning his first Tour-level title in Milan, Italy the following season.
The Swiss went on to claim 103 Tour-level titles and spent 310 weeks as the World No. 1. Nearly 23 years after the Challenger title in Brest, France, Federer is set to bid farewell to his iconic career at the Laver Cup on Friday.