The ATP Challenger tour is a range of satellite tournaments that run alongside the regular ATP World Tour.
This collection of events offers smaller venues, clubs, universities and colleges around the world the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the world’s very best professional tennis players.
Whilst it is often overshadowed by the larger 250, 500 and 1000 Masters ATP events, the Challenger circuit provides a foundation for all tennis professionals to springboard into the elite ranks of the professional game.
Winning on the Challenger tour is a great way to earn precious ATP ranking points and make big strikes on the ATP Main tour.
Playing on the Challenger tour can also help young players stay afloat with prize money, keeping their careers alive in the development stages in the professional game.
Virtually all of the best known and most celebrated tennis players in the men’s game have competed and won titles on the Challenger tour, whether that be as a junior rising up the ATP world rankings, or when returning from a long lay off through injury.
However, whilst being a professional tennis player may seem like a dream job to many budding tennis enthusiasts, the reality of life on the tennis challenger tour can be far from the glamorized life we often see on TV.
We will explore the realities of these high quality events on the challenger tour, what life is really like on the circuit and the main differences compared to the ATP World Tour.
How it Differs from the Main ATP Tour
The main differences between the ATP Tour and the Challenger Tour are the prize money and ATP Ranking points on offer.
On the regular ATP World Tour, events are classified as 250, 500, 1000 and 1500 level tournaments.
This indicates the number of ATP points a player can earn if they win the given event.
As a result, the larger events attract the higher ranked players, more sponsors and consequently more prize money.
It is any tournament’s interest to have their event as highly ranked as possible.
This raises the profile of the event, attracting more TV coverage and increases notoriety.
ATP Tour events total prize money currently ranges from around $400,000 to $6,000,000.
This pot is then split between the players depending on their progression through the tournament.
By contrast, Challenger events offer between 80 and 125 ranking points for a winner, and prize money tends to range between $40,000 and $250,000.
Therefore, it is clear to see how much harder it is to make a sustainable living on the Challenger circuit, making it all the more important for players to use these tournaments as a springboard on to the main tour rather than their main source of income.
Why the Challenger Tour is So Important
The Challenger tour plays a vital role in any professional player’s development.
A player looking to make big strides up the ATP rankings early in their career can use the challenger tour as a way to get very high level match experience, whilst earning those all important ranking points.
One of the main reasons that gaining experience on the Challenger tour is so important to a young player’s development is that it is often littered with experienced players that may be returning from an injury.
Playing more experienced players with different playing styles is a fundamental way that younger players can improve their game, especially when competing professionally.
Whilst for more experienced players, the level of competition of Challenger events makes them the perfect step back into fierce competition.
For these players, the Challenger circuit offers a slightly lower standard of competition that can help them work their way back into match fitness, whilst still building up their ranking points and prize money in the process.
These points can then be used to get into qualifying of major ATP tour events and even grand slams.
Moreover, there are 158 tournaments all around the world meaning that these events are accessible to a wider range of players.
Plus the fact, the Challenger tour runs alongside the regular ATP Tour, meaning that players can combine travel and accommodation costs when competing in multiple events.
Given that most events on the Challenger Tour will attract players ranked anywhere around the top 100 to top 500 ranking mark, it is fair to say that the quality of tennis seen at these events is high.
Especially given the fact that many of these players will be looking to get inside the world’s top 100, where it is easier to get a place directly into grand slams and the bigger main tour events.
It is therefore clear to see just how important a stepping stone the challenger tour is in the development of a professional tennis player’s career.
A Day in the Life on the Challenger Tour
As with most athletes, a good performance on the day starts with a decent sleep the night before.
However, if you know that you need to win your match in order to cover the cost of your hotel room for the night, it may be difficult to sleep so easy.
Unfortunately, up until recently this was the reality for many Challenger tournament entrants.
In 2019, the ATP made a reform that meant that all players in the main draw of a Challenger event would be provided with hotel accommodation, a welcome relief for many of these athletes.
That being said, after a questionable night’s sleep, most players will wake up and have breakfast with the other players in the designated hotel cafe. Exciting stuff we know.
Then, if there is an onsite gym most players will limber up for their match with some light cardio and dynamic stretching on a match day, or perhaps a workout if they are lucky enough to have a day off.
In preparation for their match, many players will try and scout out their opponents during practice time or a match.
This helps them get an idea of what style of play they are up against, along with understanding their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Players will also pay a visit to the on site racket stringer to make sure all of their sticks are strung correctly before stepping on to court.
After a player has played their match, they will tend to recover with more stretching or perhaps an ice bath if the facilities are available.
However, if a player has lost their match, depending on their schedule they may simply leave the tournament site and move on to their next event.
The amount of money made on the Challenger tour of course depends on how many of these titles a player wins.
Generally speaking the amount of prize money on offer at Challenger level is significantly lower than that at major ATP tournaments and grand slams.
For example, a 125 level Challenger tournament could bag the winner around $10,000.
However, losing in the first round of Wimbledon would see a player bag over $50,000.
Now, admittedly a player ranked well outside the world’s top 100 would likely have to qualify for Wimbledon, so just making the first round of a grand slam in general would be a big achievement.
However, it is clear to see the vast gap in prize money on offer at Challenger level versus grand slam level.
However, if we dig a little deeper we can really see the extent of the issue.
When you consider that many Challenger events are held in relatively obscure locations, and that there are actually separate tiers of competitions that offer food and accommodation, you can see how much pressure players are under to perform.
For example, when you consider the flights, hotel, food, physio, coaching, re-stringing and transport costs associated with travelling around Europe, Asia and America where most Challenger tournaments are held, it is clear to see how the bills can rack up.
That’s before you consider the matter of taxes.
Obviously, tennis players being self employed and constantly travelling between different countries and different currency zones, this can be difficult to manage.
So we may as well factor the cost of an accountant in too!
Despite this, some players may receive some funding from their country’s governing body or subsidies for their flights, accomodation or clothing.
Although this is not all that common for players ranked outside of the top 150, as their media coverage and exposure is generally not high enough to warrant such investment.
Add this all together and it is easy to see how many players will have to at least win a few rounds in a Challenger tournament to break even.
Therefore, whilst players in the top 25 or so of the ATP rankings will be consistently making multiple millions every year, the players ranked between 500 and 100, who are consistently playing Challenger events, would be lucky to make a fraction of that throughout their entire career.
Overall, life on the tennis challenger tour is far from easy. As you can see, the lives of most professional tennis players are not as glamorous as those superstars you always see on TV.
There are often financial worries, injuries and logistical nightmares to contend with.
However, if a player can progress through the levels of the Challenger tour and transition into the regular ATP Tour events, they can start to make massive strides in the professional game.
Therefore, although life on the Challenger tour can be tough, if players can stick with it and are lucky enough to progress through the ranks, there is certainly a successful career to be had as a professional tennis player.