ATPTour.com looks at five Challenger Tour players to keep your eyes on during the 2023 Australian Open.
Rinky Hijikata (AUS)
The 21-year-old sets his sights on making a splash at his home Slam, where he is playing the main draw for the first time. Last season, Hijikata met Rafael Nadal in the opening round of the US Open and pushed the 22-time major champion to four sets.
In October, Hijikata won his maiden Challenger title on home soil at the Playford Challenger. The Sydney native became the youngest Australian to win a Challenger title since 2018, when the-then 19-year-old Alexei Popyrin won in Jinan, China.
Rinky Hijikata is crowned champion at the 2022 Playford Challenger. Credit: Tennis Australia
The former University of North Carolina star, who is World No. 169, has already clashed against Top-5 players such as Nadal and Daniil Medvedev at the ATP 250 event in Los Cabos, where Hijikata earned his first Tour-level victory before meeting the-then World No. 1. Should Hijikata get past qualifier Yannick Hanfmann in Melbourne, he could face third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round.
Shang Juncheng (CHN)
At the Lexington Challenger, the teenager became the youngest (17 years, 6 months) player to win a Challenger title since Carlos Alcaraz at Alicante in 2020 and the youngest Chinese champion in Challenger Tour history.
The Beijing native, who became the first player born in 2005 to win a Challenger title, is one of three Chinese men in the Australian Open main draw, alongside Wu Yibing and Zhizhen Zhang. The #NextGenATP star Shang advanced through qualifying and will make his Grand Slam debut against German Oscar Otte.
‘Jerry’ Shang claims the 2022 Lexington Challenger. Credit: Lexington Challenger presented by Meridian Wealth Management
“I think overall I’m just very happy and excited about what’s coming next,” Shang said. “These three rounds I’ve given 100 per cent and I think I did very well at controlling my emotions after each round. It’s my first time playing Grand Slams, and I’m just super excited about what’s coming next in the main draw, and I’ll try my best to win.”
Yosuke Watanuki (JPN)
The 24-year-old has been one of the toughest players to beat on the Challenger Tour recently and will now get to show his talents during his Grand Slam debut. Watanuki has won 17 of his past 19 Challenger-level matches, including three final appearances. The Japanese star earned back-to-back titles in November, when he triumphed at the Kobe and Yokkaichi Challengers.
Yosuke Watanuki at the 2023 Canberra Challenger. Credit: Anastasia Kachalkova
Now at a career-high 138 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Watanuki advanced through qualifying in Australia. But it wasn’t without a test. In the second round of qualifying, the Saitama native fended off two match points against Mikhail Kukushkin to keep his hopes alive. Watanuki, who is coached by his older brother Yusuke, will meet Frenchman Arthur Rinderknech in the opening round.
Luca Van Assche (FRA)
The French youngster went on a late-season surge in 2022. The 18-year-old reached four Challenger finals in the latter part of the year, including at the Maia Open, where he collected his first Challenger trophy.
Luca Van Assche in action at the 2022 Maia Challenger. Credit: FPT/Sara Falcao
The 2021 Roland Garros boys’ singles champion is the youngest French player in the Top 200. Following his title in Portugal, he joined an exclusive list of French Challenger champions aged 18 and under: Richard Gasquet, Sebastien Grosjean, Gael Monfils, Corentin Moutet, and Fabrice Santoro.
Van Assche, who earned a wild card into the Australian Open, opens with a tough test against 11th seed Cameron Norrie.
Mattia Bellucci (ITA)
The Italian made a sudden impact on the Challenger Tour last season and climbed more than 500 spots in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings throughout the year.
In October, the 21-year-old won 12 consecutive matches and won back-to-back Challenger titles at the Saint-Tropez and Vilnius Challengers. Bellucci became the youngest Italian to win Challenger titles in back-to-back weeks since 19-year-old Stefano Pescosolido in 1991.
Mattia Bellucci earns his second Challenger title in Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit: Saulius Cirba
Bellucci, who ousted countrymen Francesco Passaro and Luciano Darderi in qualifying, is at a career-high 153 and will make his Grand Slam debut against Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi in the first round at Melbourne Park.