ATP Challenger events are underrated. The biggest difference between elite ATP players and those on the edge of the top 200 is more a mental one than physical, and many of the players at the Loughborough Trophy would have more than a decent shot against a top 30-ranked opponent.
This tier of events are a mixture of former top players who are returning from injuries, and those who are gritting it out on this level long-term – talented, but with a ceiling, or else too inconsistent to make big waves on the circuit. There are also young rising stars dedicatedly amassing the ranking points needed to compete full-time on the official ATP World Tour.
Some of these youngsters are well known, having made occasional appearances on the main tour via wildcards and in qualifying. But occasionally, you will come across a semi-unknown youngster who – for whatever reason – appears special.
This happened on Wednesday, as I watched Yosuke Watanuki of Japan – the world no. 283 – take down top seed and world no. 100 Lukas Lacko 6-3 7-5 in the first round. The latter opted not to play French Open qualifying this week, and eventually missed out on the main draw as an alternate by a single spot.
Your first thought when watching a clash like this is: what is Lukas Lacko doing which means he is losing? The guy has been ranked as high as world no. 43, while Watanuki currently sits at a career-high status outside the top 250. The instinct – especially when you are guilty of not having done your homework – is to think that the match is on the racquet of the higher-ranked player. And, to be fair, Lacko – champion at the Glasgow Trophy just a couple of weeks ago – appeared flat at times throughout the contest, unable to impose himself and lacking control.
Nevertheless, partway through that encounter, it became apparent that this clash was not so much about what Lacko was doing badly as what Watanuki was doing well. Very, very well. Incredibly well.
It was only after the match – which I had come to watch unexpectedly, hence no homework – that I discovered that the Japanese player had only recently turned 20, was at a career-high ranking, and had been racking up some highly promising results in recent weeks. It was his game alone, before any statistic or ranking, that screamed aloud his potential.
After breaking serve in the first game of that particular match, aggressive and chasing the win from the offset, Watanuki fired down powerful serves and backhand winners with ease, with Lacko – hitting with less pace on his groundstrokes – regularly overwhelmed by his opponent’s clean power, placement, and utter refusal to go away. The underdog was ready to capitalise on the Slovakian’s wayward shots, breaking serve a second time to claim a 6-3 opening set.
In the second set, Lacko began demonstrating more of what once took him into the world’s top 50, stepping up to the court and rallying more intensely. His young opponent blinked momentarily in the third game: a backhand into the net – after one of the long rallies he had been dominating – seeing Lacko break to 30. But Watanuki continued to serve big and commit to the long exchanges. The non-seeder saw three break points go begging in each of his next two return games, but stayed calm to break Lacko to 30 as he served for the set.
That alone – without the scorching backhands that whipped cross-court, the relentless forehands and the booming serve – spoke volumes. Twice while trailing in the second set, Watanuki missed key chances to break – often when Lacko found his range with his serves. But the 20-year-old shrugged off every missed opportunity like it was no big deal, and whipped out service bombs to stay within touching distance – eventually reaping the rewards of his quality in the key moments. He may have been playing the world no. 100 at a Challenger event, but he handled himself and his game throughout the match as though he were playing the world no. 10 at an ATP event. And ultimately, it saw him win the last four games to walk away with the 6-3 7-5 victory – which he was, frankly, giddy with pleasure about.
“I was so tired in the second set, but I just kept thinking ‘next point, next point, next point’, and I am so happy now,” he shared afterwards.
After a triumph like this – which is Watanuki’s second over a top 100 player, out of three contested in his career – the biggest challenge was going to be consolidating. The drain of adrenaline after a an upset – especially one where the victor is playing with as much energy, consistency and concentration as Watanuki was – can lead to a flat and/or disappointing exit at the hands of a lower-ranked opponent. It was not worth hyping the right-hander if he did not sustain his level, because any number of players can produce a one-off stellar performance.
But Watanuki did not disappoint.
Being present simply to analyse Watanuki’s game, it was even clearer to see what made him so effective. I hate to make comparisons between players that share the same nationality, because it robs a player of their individuality, but I could not help thinking: “Shades of Kei Nishikori.”
Nishikori is an all-court player with a full repertoire, but is also able to rally to death at the baseline with great flexibility, speed and placement – without appearing to grow weary. Watanuki achieves something similar, although the pace and precision of his serve is one of his most visible weapons. At any point of the match, he can rain bullets down the ‘T’ with devastating precision – often when he is in a spot of bother – and he has the attacking groundstrokes to back up that shot.
But most similar to Nishikori is the way he rallies tirelessly, unafraid of engaging in long exchanges – and capable of mixing it up. Some players either play fast, or play slow, or hit hard, or counter-punch. Watanuki is a smart and thoughtful player who can do any of the above successfully, and he analyses so swiftly that it appears instinctive. Against Roberto Ortega-Olmedo in round two, he switched up his top spin and the height of his ball to get onto the front foot in rallies, and was not afraid to slow down the pace of his own groundstrokes. His speed around the court – and anticipation, shown many a time when reaching a drop-shot to strike a winner – means that he does not feel the need to simply hit as hard as possible.
His defence also plays a role. Time and again versus his Spanish opponent, the rising Japanese player bent sideways to slice a forehand back into play. But unlike most defensive slices, the ball travelled so low and deep that it kept him right in the thick of the rally.
Before I get carried away, Watanuki still has a long way to go. Against Lacko, he was fortunate that the Slovakian blew cold on some of his break point opportunities, and he was forced to save two set points against world no. 290 Ortega-Olmedo. A top 20 opponent might not have been so forgiving.
Nevertheless, he did this with apparent ease: fearlessly targeting the sidelines for winners, and the corners of the service box for a dominant start. And again, these players are capable of competing far above their rankings. Watanuki has been approaching each match – in terms of tactics, focus and execution – as though he were competing at a higher-level event.
Last week, all the way over in South Korea, the 5’11” youngster qualified for the Busan Open Challenge, and went all the way to the semi-finals. There, he lost only to world no. 78 Vasek Pospisil – 6-3 3-6 6-4 – after defeating notable names along the way. He won the only ITF Futures event he played this season without dropping a set.
It may take some time for him to reach his full potential. But at his current level, Yosuke Watanuki should soon be racing into the top 100.
The talent, the desire and the mindset are all there. If what has been on display this week is anything to go by, the sky is the limit for this kid.