An interesting twitter discussion was sparked today centered around the crowd size (or lack there of) at Jared Hiltzik's quarterfinal match against Adrien Bossel in the Winnetka Challenger. Hiltzik, who turned 21-years old yesterday received a wildcard into the main draw of the tournament and has made the most of it, reaching the quarterfinals in the tournament in his home state.
Hiltzik grew up in Illinois and now plays for the Fighting Illini's men's tennis team, and now is playing in the most important match of his professional career in that same state, but you wouldn't know it by the crowd. At least that's what twitter is saying.
It's easy to feel for Hiltzik, who is getting less than the deserved support in such an important moment, and rightfully so. However, that is not a bash on the people of Illinois that weren't in attendance, but more of a comment on the state of the ATP Challenger Tour.
The tour provides some of the best tennis on the planet without doubt, yet it is often thought of or treated like a minor league. However, that is simply not the case. At the tournament, all of the top five seeds are ranked between 100 and 129. I'm certain that five of the top 200 players in any sport have every played in the same minor league game.
In fact, according to the CBS fantasy baseball rankings, the top 8 seeds in Winnetka are the equivalent of having Chris Davis, Jay Bruce, Gio Gonzalez, Jered Weaver, Jimmy Rollins, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, and Joe Mauer all play in a baseball game.
Here's the catch though: All eight of those players have been named to all-star teams with a grand total of 28 all-star selections between the teams. So which is it, are they minor leaguers or all-stars?
I would argue that it is a lot closer to the latter. However, I don't need to explain how big the difference is between attention given to the MLB all-star game compared to even the most important Challenger Tour match.
So what's the problem? It certainly isn't the fault of the fans, but more of a journalism problem. The Challenger Tour is presented on the ATP website like it were the minor leagues. It's in the names even. The website is called the ATP World Tour, and calling events worth less than 250 points "the Challenger Tour" certainly gives off the affect that these are players who have not yet arrived on the big stage.
This problem is made worse by a lot of former players (the current players do a great job giving lower ranked players deserved credit). The worst of all is John McEnroe, who frequently calls anyone not ranked in the top 50 a "no-name player,"
Tennis is a sport driven by names and not uniform colors, but that doesn't mean that two players ranked outside the top 100 can't put on a very high quality display of tennis. Even the players outside the top 100 are more than capable of drawing in new fans. I got excited about junior level Grade 4 qualifying action in Costa Rica that I got to watch. I know not everyone on earth shares my passion for tennis, but what the Challenger Tour in person has to offer is enough to "Wow" even someone who has never seen tennis before.
If the Challenger Tour weren't seen or treated like the minor leagues of tennis, it certainly has all the aspects to draw in tennis fans around the world and sell tickets almost as much as any 250 event can. I don't expect that we will see the ATP make that change and start promoting the Challenger Tour much more than they already do, simply because there is a limited amount of man power to generate content on the website and on other platforms, but that is certainly one method to help grow the sport.