This Challenger more like a regular ATP Tour stop

3/21/2008 - Tennis
After dropping his first match at the Pacific Life Open to Mario Ancic, Fernando Gonzalez decided a challenger event was the perfect tune-up for Miami. AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

If there was a version of "The Little Engine That Could" in tennis, it likely would be the BMW Tennis Championship, a Challenger tournament with a big heart and a surprisingly big-time field.

At first glance, the BMW Tennis Championship resembles any other second-tier tournament among the approximate 140 Challenger events held in about 40 countries around the world. The championship is held in a public park setting at the Sunrise Tennis Club in Sunrise, Fla. It has a small, 2,500-seat, makeshift stadium, a pro shop building that's turned into tournament offices, a player lounge and locker room, and a lean-to canvas top with no protective sides that hangs over a cement deck as a pressroom.

And most of all, it has a skimpy $100,000 pool of prize money.

But dig deeper under the veneer and it's easy to see that the initial view of the BMW Tennis Championship is not your common-variety Challenger -- which typically are breeding grounds for future ATP Tour headliners. Uniquely, this event isn't in the business of cultivating potential stars because it's too busy hosting players who've already made it.

Supersonic-server Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, who ended last year ranked in the top 10 and currently is at No. 12, accepted a wild card as the tournament's top seed. If Gonzalez goes on to win this title, he would rake in a puny $14,400 in prize money, not quite the size check he's used to for winning a title -- he pulled in $73,500 for winning Vina del Mar, one of the lowest-level tournaments in the ATP International Series, back home in Chile last month.

Finn Jarkko Nieminen, ranked No. 26, slotted in as the second seed but lost his opening match to No. 85-ranked Jurgen Melzer of Austria on Wednesday.

Five players in the draw are ranked within the top 50: Gonzalez, Nieminen, Potito Starace, Andreas Seppi, and Janko Tipsarevic. And if we stretch the rankings to No. 51, which is currently occupied by former top-five Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, that's six players regarded as the upper echelon of the Tour.

Nestled into a clever scheduling slot that overlaps the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells and butts up against the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, the BMW Tennis Championship field is as good, if not better, than some ATP tournament draws.

The true serendipity for this Challenger is that it's located less than an hour away from next week's Miami tournament, making it the perfect location for players who were early-round ousters at the Pacific Life Open to find extra matches and acclimate to the humid conditions of south Florida.

"We have guys in the top 50, it's huge, huge," said Gabe Norona, the tournament director of the 5-year-old BMW. "First-round matches, it's ridiculous. We have Rainer Schuettler [Ranked No. 89] against Stefan Koubek [No. 58]. This is not a Challenger, this is like an [ATP] International Series event."

Just how an event of this size landed Gonzalez is an interesting story.

When Norona heard that Andy Roddick lost his second-round match to Tommy Haas at Indian Wells, he phoned Roddick's agent, Ken Meyerson at SFX, to see if he would like a wild card into the tournament. Meyerson explained that Roddick wasn't in need of extra matches but that his other client, Fernando Gonzalez, who lost early at Indian Wells and Las Vegas, would possibly be interested.

Gonzalez, who last played a Challenger at Szczecin, Poland, in September 2002, is certainly one of the highest-ranked players to take the step down to a Challenger main draw. After taking care of business against No. 95 Evgeny Korolev in his opening match -- a player he lost to two weeks ago in Vegas -- Gonzalez said accepting the wild card was a no-brainer.

"I'm happy to have a chance to play here and have some more matches before Miami," Gonzalez said. "My agent called me and asked me if I wanted to do it, and I thought it would be very good. I'm trying to find my best tennis."

Unlike most mainstream ATP tournaments, Challengers tend to take place at more intimate venues. Gonzalez's Wednesday night match was watched by a crowd slightly short of the 2,500-seat stadium capacity, and among the fans were high-profile faces, most notably Korolev's first cousin, Anna Kournikova, as well as Florida Panthers center Jozef Stumpel and former hockey player Valeri Bure.

"It's a Challenger, but there are so many good players, it's so much more like a tour event," Gonzalez said. "It has a pretty familiar feeling. I normally play in bigger stadiums, but with the smaller stadium you can interact with the crowd and you can see everybody who is here, and it's really fun."

The smaller crowds, stadium and venue are not negatives for the players. That is in good part due to Norona, a savvy businessman with a love for the sport -- he does his best to mimic the atmosphere at larger events by bringing in top-quality tournament officials and sponsors, and he carefully remembers to spoil the players.

"To be honest, if you look at the field, you have a lot of competition to deal with," Melzer said. "This is a great tournament. It's still a Challenger, but I think with the players they have, it's just like an ATP tournament. I lost early in Indian Wells and I had a week to kill, so this is perfect.

"We have everything we need -- great practice with good sparring partners. It's a nice place to be and we enjoy it. You get the little family atmosphere. We get to relax before the big tournament next week in Miami. And we have Sawgrass Mills -- it's one of the biggest shopping outlets in the United States. It's not that big of a prize money here, so [to shop] you have to dig into your pocket, too."

For Grosjean, who lives with his wife Marie and children in nearby Boca Raton, playing at the BMW Tennis Championship marks his first Challenger stop since he won the Cherbourg, France tourney when ranked No. 89 in February 1999.

Playing this week not only provides Grosjean extra matches in advance of Miami but also offers him the opportunity to break in his brand-new jet black F430 Ferrari. Thus far, Grosjean has not received a speeding ticket for opening it up on the Sawgrass Expressway during his commute.

"It's amazing to see so many guys playing here, but with almost two weeks between Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, if you lose in Indian Wells in the second round that would be a lot of days without playing," Grosjean said. "And I just live next door."

The prize money might not break the bank, but this Challenger has some heavy-hitting money sources behind it.

BMW uses the tournament as a platform not only to get spectators to watch tennis but also to test drive a Beemer. In all, 16 sponsors were listed in the tournament program and featured on banners -- from Norona's own software businesses and tennis store to Robb & Stucky Interiors, 24-Hour Fitness and Comcast Spotlight.

While the ambitious might desire to upgrade to the major leagues, that is not Norona's plan. He hopes to keep improving the event and to continue to attract an impressive field; the City of Sunrise is hoping to facilitate that by building an intimate-sized stadium on the property.

"Everybody asks me if I want to become a bigger tournament and I say, 'What would be different?'" Norona said. "The only difference would be prize money. The players, they like it here."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.