Italian Francesco Passaro has an interesting take on the ATP Challenger Tour.
“Sometimes I think it’s more difficult to play Challengers than the ATP (Tour), because we are more hungry to go up. I think it’s like university for us and then the ATP Tour is the job. We are trying to study to be ATP Tour ready,” said the World No. 128, who is now 27-12 at the Challenger level this year.
Passaro is one of six Italian #NextGenATP youngsters who have claimed a Challenger title in 2022. Luca Nardi, Flavio Cobolli, Matteo Arnaldi, Francesco Maestrelli, and Lorenzo Musetti have also triumphed this season. The fresh crop of Italian stars often travel to tournaments as a group.
With 20 Italians inside the Top 200 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Passaro believes his countrymen are feeding off each other’s success and benefitting from attention given to Italy’s highest-ranked ATP Tour stars, which has kept pressure off the country’s emerging talent.
“I think Jannik [Sinner], Matteo [Berrettini], and Lorenzo [Musetti] are doing well for us. They take all the pressure of the media and we can do our run easier without a lot of attention,” Passaro said.
“Me, Arnaldi, Nardi, [Giulio] Zeppieri, Cobolli, we like to stay together. We sometimes practise together, we have a lot of synergy. We went to the US Open qualifying all together.”
“We are lucky because we have a lot of tournaments in Italy. We have the ATP Finals, Next Gen Finals, Masters 1000 in Rome, 25 Challengers I think, and a lot of Futures. We have the opportunity to play all the weeks in Italy. We push everyone because maybe If I win a tournament, another guy says ‘Yeah, Francesco won the tournament, I can win too!’”
Passaro won his first ATP Challenger Tour main-draw match at the Sanremo Challenger in April, before making a run to the final (l. Rune) and marking his surge on to the Challenger Tour this season.
The 21-year-old has competed in five ATP Challenger Tour finals this season, including in Trieste, where he collected his maiden title. Passaro, who played mostly ITF Futures tournaments in 2021, has improved his ranking by nearly 500 spots in the past 12 months.
Francesco Passaro claimed his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Trieste, Italy. Credit: Citta di Trieste Challenger
The #NextGenATP star admitted that he changed his mentality at the beginning of the year, when he began to ‘take his job more seriously’. The newfound commitment has led to him surpassing his goals this year.
“My goal at the start of the season was to be in the Top 300,” Passaro said. “I’ve done more than what I was thinking, so I’m very proud of the work I’ve done with my coach and my team. Now I want to push harder because I think I can do good things.”
In June, Passaro advanced through qualifying en route to making the final at the Forli-6 Challenger, where he lost to his countryman, Lorenzo Musetti 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. In the semi-final, Passaro defeated Spaniard Jaume Munar 6-3, 7-5, claiming his first victory against a player ranked within the Top 100 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Munar was then-World No. 87 and seeded second at the event.
“The match against Munar was almost two hours for two sets. He’s a great player, who never gets down and always tries to fight. I felt a lot of tension,” Passaro said.
“I won the first set in the final against Lorenzo, 6-2, I played amazing. In the second set, he was serving at 1-1, 15/40 and I didn’t break in that game. I feel like that was my opportunity, but after that he started to play better. Now he plays a lot of matches on the ATP Tour, so he’s a more experienced player and he won in Hamburg.”
Three weeks later, Passaro didn’t drop a set en route to the Milan Challenger final, where he was ousted by Argentine Federico Coria.
Passaro won his first Challenger title in Trieste, Italy in July, when he rallied from a set down in the championship match to defeat China’s Zhang Zhizhen, who has played in four Challenger finals this season, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. A hard-earned win came after Passaro lost the trio of finals to Top 100 players.
“It was amazing because I lost my previous three finals against Holger [Rune], Lorenzo [Musetti], and Federico Coria, so for me it was very important. I tried to do my best; the first set I was so nervous and Zhang was also playing good. It was not easy, I was just really happy.”
The Perugia native now sets his sights on qualifying for the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals. The season finale, which is held in Milan, Italy, hosts the world’s Top-8 21-and-under players. Passaro, who is ninth in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Milan, acknowledged that it would be a memorable experience if he were to make it to Milan.
“It’s a big goal for me because at the start of the season, it was not in my mind to be there [Milan]. I will do my best to be there. It won’t be easy because everyone wants to go there, it’s a big experience for us. Also, for me to play in Italy, with the home crowd, I think it would maybe be the best week of my life.”
Passaro reached his fifth Challenger final of the season this past week in Como, Italy, where he was defeated by German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Passaro will next play the ATP Challenger 125 event in Genoa, Italy, 19-25 September.