Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Sock Turns it Around, Mannarino Dominates the Field

Steve Johnson in action on the Challenger Tour

Although the big headline in the tennis world is the cancellation of the Indian Wells Masters following the spread of the coronavirus into California, there was no shortage of entertaining action on the Challenger Tour last week. Here’s a recap of what you might have missed:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Indian Wells

Last week saw one major surprise: Jack Sock. Having struggled for the last two seasons, even falling out of the ATP Rankings in January, the American put it all together at the Indian Wells Challenger. Although the wildcards he received at the New York Open and in Delray Beach hardly looked warranted in February, the former world #8 was back to something approaching his best in the Californian desert, with his fitness having improved notably, as he came through four tough three-setters.

Having already been taken the distance by Kaichi Uchida in the first round, before upsetting top seed Ugo Humbert in the second, Sock found himself staring down the barrel with Evgeny Donskoy serving for the match in the last 16. But the American stood his ground and brought his big forehand to bear, eventually rallying to claim a 6-4 4-6 7-6 win. He backed that up by edging out Denis Kudla, 7-6 5-7 6-4, in the quarterfinals. Sock then beat Brandon Nakashima from a set down to reach the final.

There, he faced Steve Johnson, a long-time friend and rival, who beat him just two weeks ago in Delray Beach. And it was once again Johnson who came out on top, saving all seven of the break points he faced in a 6-4 6-4 win. The veteran American has made a great start to the year on the Challenger circuit, having already won the title in Bendigo and reached the last four in Newport, and he continued that fine form in Indian Wells.

Indeed, he dropped just one set over the course of the week, to Marc Polmans in his first match. Noah Rubin was the only other player to even break the Johnson serve, with his forehand particularly impressive. His victory sees him rise further up the rankings, having climbed 22 spots already from 85th in the world at the start of the season to his current ranking of #63. Sock, who started the week with just 20 points, catapulted up 384 places, coincidentally enough to world #384.

Both Johnson and Sock had been due to play at the Indian Wells Masters, having been awarded wild cards. But with that tournament cancelled, they will instead receive a well-earned break, although they would likely have preferred to attempt to make use of the momentum they picked up last week on one of tennis’ grandest stages. Another player likely to be frustrated by the enforced break will be the returning Lucas Pouille, who was in action for the first time since last year’s Shanghai Masters.

That said, the Frenchman is perhaps not yet back to full match fitness and lost 4-6 6-7 to Noah Rubin in the first round. Also worthy of mention are Mitchell Krueger and Marcos Giron, who both earned now-defunct wildcards into the main draw in Indian Wells. Krueger struggled at times at the Indian Wells Challenger, but battled into the semifinals, whilst Giron lost to Nakashima in the last eight, but his impressive recent form was nonetheless enough to protect his healthy lead in the Oracle Challenger Series standings.

Monterrey

Adrian Mannarino, the top seed in Monterrey, took a late wildcard to join the field in Mexico. It was a decision that paid off handsomely for the Frenchman, who looked a class above his competition. Despite coming up against a number of players who had looked to be in fine form, Mannarino was largely untroubled on his march to the title, with his flat groundstrokes causing real problems. Neither Peter Polansky nor John-Patrick Smith provided a real test, whilst Ulises Blanch, the champion in Ann Arbor earlier this season, was also well-beaten.

Aleksandar Vukic, meanwhile, guaranteed himself a place in the top 200 for the first time in his career by reaching the final. His rise in the rankings has largely been built upon a much-improved serve, which has seen him post some excellent results since the start of the season. But although he had been broken just twice en route to the final, by Feliciano Lopez and Kevin King, Mannarino imposed himself on return from the get-go.

Vukic was broken four times in a one-sided 1-6 3-6 defeat that lasted just over an hour as Mannarino capped off an impressive week, climbing back into the top 40 as a reward for his efforts. He had been due to compete in Indian Wells next, but will now instead spend a week on the sidelines. Also in action in Monterrey was the 2019 Wimbledon boys’ singles champion Shintaro Mochizuki, who claimed his first win on the Challenger Tour. The Japanese defeated local wildcard Juan Alejandro Hernandez, before giving a good account of himself in defeat to the fourth seed Ricardas Berankis.

Challenger Tour magic:

Doubles competition in Monterrey saw plenty of superb shot-making this week:

Some of the surprise tactics were pulled off again:

This really isn’t how Sock behaved all week:

Events held next week:

  • Nur-Sultan Challenger (Challenger 80)
  • Potchefstroom Open (Challenger 50)

No top 100 players will be in action next week, as many competitors were expecting to try their luck in Indian Wells qualifying. Nur-Sultan will see Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat as the top seed, whilst tennis at this level will return to South Africa for the first time since 2013 at the Potchefstroom Open, which kicks off the new Challenger 50 format. Benjamin Bonzi will be the top seed at that event, having won a 25K ITF at the same venue this week.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, further Challenger tour events in the following cities were cancelled/postponed:

  • Madrid (starting on the 23rd of March, postponed to October)
  • Anning (20th of April, canceled)
  • Seoul (27th of April, postponed to August)
  • Busan (4th of May, postponed to August)
  • Gwangju (11th of May, postponed to August)

Additionally, a Challenger in Samarkand that was due to start on the 11th of May will not be played due to financial issues.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


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