Mike Cation on Why Challenger Tennis Matters

By Scott Barclay and Owen Lewis

“Nick Kyrgios always used to say to me ‘I miss those days,’ referring to when he did a couple Challengers with us in the States in Sarasota and Savannah back in 2014. And I never really understood what he meant. For many years, I would just be like ‘come on.’ What do you mean, you miss those days?’ And the more and more I’ve done Grand Slams, the more and more I’ve done ATP events…I understand it now. 

It [Challenger tennis] is tennis at its base level. It is two players — or four — a chair umpire, some linespeople, sometimes there are fans in the crowd, sometimes there’s not, but you don’t have a big circus around it. It is just tennis, man. That is where I want to be. I don’t need all the hoopla…I don’t need it. Give me tennis. Let me watch it. Two players who are very damn good — I mean, if you are 120 in the world, Jesus, do you realize how good these players are? Holy hell. That is pure. That is pure tennis and I think it’s just much better than all of that other stuff that goes along [with the main tour].”

That’s Mike Cation talking about Challenger Tour events. The passion he feels for these events is obvious, but there’s also some frustration in his voice. He knows that these events aren’t getting the attention they richly deserve. 

The Challenger Tour is the highest level of men’s tennis below the ATP Tour itself. It’s made up of young players trying to kickstart a pro career, aging players trying to make it back to the ATP, and those who fail to qualify for the biggest events. Challengers are much more than a collection of has-beens and players who aren’t quite good enough, though. At the Challenger level, storylines are fascinating and motivations are high. 

Also, cool stuff like this happens.

Cation frequently uses the phrase “tennis ecosystem” rather than “tennis world” or “tennis landscape.” He sees the sport as a symbiotic environment, where one organization can help another. Cation aims to help others understand that Challengers are a valuable part of that ecosystem. 

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Cation had a rather stop-start relationship with tennis in his teenage years. He relays memories of his high school playing career, describing himself as “very average” to begin with before picking up some traction and getting noticed by somewhat prominent Division III schools. Unfortunately, that momentum turned out to be fleeting. “By the time I played my last tournament, when I was 17, I had already blown out my shoulder twice and decided I didn’t want to play anymore,” he says. “It was too painful.”

So ended any hopes of ever seeing Mike Cation, professional tennis player. In its place, however, were the early burgeoning signs of Mike Cation, Challenger commentator extraordinaire. “I went to college and I knew I wanted to be in broadcasting, so I did a broadcast degree — literally zero having to do with sports while I was in college — but then my first job out of school was in Champaign, Illinois, which is where I’m from.”

The man himself. Photo via Mike Cation

One of Cation’s first proper interviews was with a man that many tennis fans know and… erm… love (?!): the current Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley. Back then, Tiley was the head coach at the University of Illinois. “I had taken lessons with him at times, while I was doing my junior career — both group lessons and individual lessons,” Cation recalls. “So we were doing an interview promoting the upcoming season, and he said ‘hey, we’re looking for a new public address announcer, would you be interested?’ I said sure, and that was 2001.”

From there, Cation got involved with the tennis programs for Illinois while also managing to land a position working at the Champaign Challenger event. He worked as the PR guy for the tournament for about nine years before being asked to cover the Challenger circuit in the US. The rest, as they say, is history. “It was really just a lot of connections and happening to be in the right place at the right time and surrounded by the right people.”

A lot of luck, perhaps. A lot of skill, knowledge and willingness to work, for sure.

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Broadcasting is a complex field, with some of the most prominent jobs being awarded to former players without much regard for their actual tennis expertise. (Owen abhors Jimmy Arias and John McEnroe’s commentary in particular.) Cation stresses that his own favorites are subjective, but having been in the field for so long, his recommendations carry some extra weight. “I think Nick Lester is phenomenally good as a tennis play-by-play broadcaster,” he says. “When I started trying to watch more and more, he was that gold standard for me. He was funny and could provide insight, but also has a great balance of when to sit out.”

Cation’s eyes light up as he remembers a moment last year when he had the opportunity to listen in on two of his favorite commentators working together at the U.S. Open. “It was a first-time broadcast pairing of Nick Lester and Mary Carillo,” Cation reminisces. “I love Mary Carillo for how brave she continues to be. She stands up for what she believes in, and she’s a fantastic broadcaster as well. Has done it for 30 years. God, she’s so good. They hadn’t met, didn’t know each other. But I had such incredible respect for the both of them that I went up to Nick and asked ‘do you mind if I just sit in for a little bit?’ I fanboyed out for a little bit.”

And what was he able to take away from that experience? “It was just two incredible broadcasters at the peak of their craft, just sitting there figuring out the match, figuring out each other, but not overdoing it. None of that was audible to the viewer, the listener. None of it was. They’re so good at understanding each other’s role and letting the tennis happen. And that’s ultimately what it’s really all about.” 

He’s right. In Cation’s view, the biggest flaw in commentary is a broadcaster’s ego getting out of hand. “Egos in commentary and broadcasting in general are massive,” Cation explains. “So one of the biggest flaws — again, my opinion only — is people thinking they are what’s causing an average viewer to tune in, when the average viewer is tuning in to watch the dang sport.”

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So generally speaking, what’s stopping people from tuning in to watch at the Challenger level? Is it a simple case of tennis fans wrongly assuming that the second tier of men’s professional tennis can only ever provide a second-rate level of play? Well, not exactly. It actually comes down to — amongst other things — scheduling. “If you’re looking at an average tennis fan as opposed to a more invested one, you’re just not going to get them to turn down Rafa [Nadal] or Iga [Świątek] to watch, even, say, Liam Broady vs. Gastão Elias. That’s a fun matchup, but the average tennis fan…you’re not going to get them to switch over.” 

So how can we go about growing an audience for something like Challenger tennis? “I think globally, tennis needs to do a better job of making it so that these players matter. Make it feel like they matter.” Cation’s words are weary. He knows the things he’s talking about would require a massive overhaul of how these players are paid and how advertisers market Challenger tennis. None of this is new to him; he describes it as “bigger picture issues that we’ve been talking about for many years.”

Something, clearly, needs to change.

Key figures in the sport are not helping. In December of last year, Andrea Gaudenzi, the head of the ATP, jumped into headlines with comments that suggested that Challenger tennis could never realistically present players with a comfortable living. “I don’t think it will ever be possible to have a sustainable tour at that level [the Challenger Tour] simply because it lacks the interest of the fans and the engagement of the sponsors, broadcasters and ticket revenues.” He went on to compare the Challenger tour to university, suggesting that the ATP Tour was the real world beyond the graduation ceremony.

It’s safe to say that many Challenger tour players were less than impressed with these comments, something Cation is all too happy to confirm. More pressingly, though, players were wounded by the comments. “It was heartbreaking, to be honest,” Cation says. “There are so many incredibly talented players who are really hurt by that. I don’t know how else to say it. They were just crushed to think that they weren’t valuable members of this tennis ecosystem.”

All of this comes back to Cation’s earlier point on what it would take to overhaul the Challenger circuit to help bring in viewers and in turn, present a more fruitful playing environment for players. Cation knows it’s a lot to expect but doesn’t think it has to be a hopeless pipe-dream. “I do continue to disagree with the idea that it’s not marketable, that we can’t have more financial success at that level,” he says. “I think it needs to be a bit more of a trickle-down-type of system financially.”

It could probably do without any further disparaging remarks from those in positions of power as well.

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Cation, despite being part of the tennis world for over two decades already — and he is regarded as one of the hardest workers in tennis — has gas left in the tank. “If I could just be a part of this tennis ecosystem for another ten years,” he says, “that would be ideal.” In fact, he could be working more than he already is. “I think one thing fans don’t always appreciate is that I could probably work 30 to 35 weeks a year in tennis if I really wanted to,” continues Cation. Instead, he is limiting himself to 15 to 18 weeks a year on the road. 

What’s stopping him from doing more? His love for his seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I’m doing something I really love, but god, I’d much rather be at home with my kid!” Cation exclaims. “She’s awesome.”

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