It's one of the more critical periods on the ATP Challenger Tour calendar. The second week of the BNP Paribas Open, an ATP Masters 1000 event, is not only important for those still competing in the California desert.
Those seeking more matches following an early exit in Indian Wells are targeting this week's inaugural Arizona Tennis Classic in Phoenix, before making the trek to Miami for the second of the 'March Masters' events. The field is as strong as ever for a Challenger tournament.
Led by World No. 21 David Goffin, the stacked draw features a total of five Top 50 players and 17 in the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings. John Millman is seeded third, with recent Marseille finalist Mikhail Kukushkin fourth. #NextGenATP star Casper Ruud is looking to build off a Top 100 debut in the ATP Rankings, following his semi-final run in Sao Paulo.
"This definitely the strongest Challenger of the year, falling between Indian Wells and Miami," said Millman. "Everyone knows that it's almost like a tour event. I knew that coming in, that every match was going to be tough. After I went out early in Indian Wells, I wanted some quality matches heading into Miami. I didn't want to just relax in tennis paradise. I think it's awesome to come here and compete against top players and the tournament has made me feel very welcome so far."
"It's really good for a first-time event," said Mitchell Krueger. "I don't how long they have been planning this in advance. You can't control the weather obviously, but I think everything else is as good as you can ask for."
Despite being held at the affluent Phoenix Country Club, featuring world-class facilities including a state-of-the-arm gym and player area and courts, the tournament did not get off to a flying start. As Krueger alluded to, the weather wreaked havoc on the opening few days. Perisistent rain showers led to the completion of just 12 of the 16 first-round matches on Monday and Tuesday. Seeds did not take the court until Wednesday, with doubles play not beginning until Thursday.
With spirits dampened, no pun intended, players enjoyed a night out at the Phoenix Suns basketball game on Wednesday. More than 20 players took in the action from a private suite at Talking Stick Arena, as the Utah Jazz defeated the Suns 114-97. It was a fun evening of hoops, good food and entertainment.
In fact, during a timeout, four players were brought to the court and tasked with tossing t-shirts and tennis balls into the crowd. From firing serves on the tennis court to launching prizes into the upper deck at a Phoenix arena, it was a memorable experience. Millman, Krueger, Pedja Krstin and Jason Jung were the quartet on the court.
"It's the first time for me to go on an NBA court and it's a good opportunity," said Jung. "I don't know if I'll ever have the chance to do that again. It was really cool to throw out the shirts for the fans and you don't get to do it that often. I like basketball and follow the Los Angeles Lakers since I was a kid, but they've been pretty disappointing lately."
A similar activity happened at the Cleveland Open presented by Cleveland Clinic in January. Noah Rubin, Stefan Kozlov, Marcos Giron and Ulises Blanch tossed t-shirts and tournament tickets into the crowd.
"I could only hope to live up to the hype that Noah and Koz created," said Krueger. "It was a lot of fun being on the floor. I've had courtside seats to a game before, but never been on the court itself."
Following two days of clear, sunny skies, order has been restored at the Challenger 125 event. An all-Italian quarter-final features Matteo Berrettini vs. Lorenzo Sonego, with third seed Millman facing 12th seed Guido Andreozzi. Another Italian, Salvatore Caruso meets either Goffin or Ruud. Also, fourth seed Mikhail Kukushkin battles either Taro Daniel or Nicolas Jarry.