For the next fortnight, all eyes will be on the stars of the ATP Tour as they battle for glory at Roland Garros. But as hungry as they will be to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires, there is another group of competitors that are just as motivated to make a splash at the clay-court Grand Slam. They are the players competing throughout the year on the ATP Challenger Tour.
Securing entry into a Grand Slam is no simple task. It requires year-round focus, hard work and consistency to arrive at this moment. For players grinding on the Challenger circuit, this is the reward. Having the opportunity to test their talents against the best players in the world, and with coveted FedEx ATP Rankings points and prize money at stake, is what drives these players from January to November.
Roland Garros 2021 is no exception. 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 on the terre battue 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 in Paris…
Benjamin Bonzi (FRA)
The 2021 match wins leader on the ATP Challenger Tour is making his third appearance at his home Grand Slam. If his first two bids on the Parisian clay are any indication of how his 2021 campaign will go, Bonzi will enter with plenty of confidence. In 2017, the Frenchman defeated Daniil Medvedev to reach the second round in his major debut and just last year he upset Emil Ruusuvuori in four sets.
Bonzi, who turns 25 next month, is peaking at the right time. Up to a career-high No. 115 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, the Nimes native is soaring towards the Top 100. He owns a tour-leading 25 match wins this year on the Challenger circuit, including titles on the hard courts of Potchefstroom, South Africa, and clay of Ostrava, Czech Republic. Having previously never lifted a Challenger trophy, Bonzi’s double has made him one of the more feared players this year.
The Frenchman will face Argentine veteran Facundo Bagnis in the first round on the terre battue. A potential second-round date with seventh seed Andrey Rublev looms large.
2021 Challenger Wins Leaders
Jenson Brooksby (USA)
Brooksby enters his first Roland Garros main draw as one of the hottest players on the planet. The #NextGenATP American’s physicality and unrelenting mental drive will be on full display on the red clay. In just his first few months since turning pro, the California native reeled off 19 wins from 21 matches on the ATP Challenger Tour. That included titles on the hard courts of Potchefstroom and Orlando and clay of Tallahassee.
At the age of 20, Brooksby will look to carry the momentum from a stunning run through qualifying that included a comeback from a set and a double break down on Friday. He brings a 13-match win streak into a first round clash with another red-hot player – Aslan Karatsev. It will be the first meeting between the American and the Russian.
Bjorn Fratangelo (USA)
The former World No. 99 Fratangelo is quietly mounting a charge up the FedEx ATP Rankings in 2021, as the American continues his quest to return to the Top 100. After struggling with various injuries in recent years, the 27-year-old is finally healthy and picking up where he left off. A first Challenger title since 2018 came on the hard courts of Cleveland and was followed by a clay-court championship clash against Brooksby in Tallahassee.
Fratangelo would fall to his countryman in the Tallahassee final, but will take great confidence from an impressive 11-3 mark to open the year. The Pennsylvania native also qualified at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami and reached the second round behind an upset of Fernando Verdasco. It was his first match win at the Masters 1000 level in two years.
The 2011 junior champion at Roland Garros returns to Paris for his third appearance in the big show (2016 & 2017). After dropping just one set in qualifying, he will open against Cameron Norrie. A potential third-round encounter with 13-time champion Rafael Nadal looms in the third round.
Arthur Rinderknech (FRA)
Take your pick from the French wild cards. Bonzi is joined by fellow Challenger star Rinderknech, last year’s Roland Garros teen sensation Hugo Gaston and February’s Gran Canaria champion Enzo Couacaud.
It is the former Texas A&M University standout Rinderknech who is Top 10 among Challenger match wins leaders in 2021. Boasting a 15-6 record, his title to open the season in Istanbul set the tone for a strong first quarter. And the 25-year-old hasn’t limited his success to the Challenger circuit. A first ATP Tour match win came in Marseille in March, where he reached the quarters, and just two weeks ago he would streak to another quarter-final in Lyon. It was in Lyon that he scored the biggest win of his career, stunning World No. 17 Jannik Sinner in a deciding set.
Now, Rinderknech is hoping his 2021 tour-level breakthrough will translate to the Grand Slam stage. A first-round meeting with Marin Cilic awaits in Paris, with 2009 champion Roger Federer a potential second round opponent.
Bernabe Zapata Miralles (ESP)
One of the more intriguing under-the-radar match-ups at Roland Garros sees two Spanish qualifiers do battle: Bernabe Zapata Miralles vs. Carlos Alcaraz. We all know about Alcaraz, the 18-year-old setting the professional circuit ablaze with his charge to the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings.
But don’t sleep on countryman Zapata Miralles. The Valencia native defeated Alcaraz for his maiden Challenger title last year in Cordenons, Italy, and is making his Grand Slam debut on the heels of a second crown in Heilbronn, Germany. Sitting just shy of his career-high No. 126 in the world, Zapata Miralles is making a strong push towards the Top 100. A run to the Round of 16 at the ATP 500 event in Barcelona, where he stunned Fabio Fognini, has him soaring with confidence entering Roland Garros.
Zapata Miralles reeled off six sets in a row from qualifying to punch his ticket to the main draw.