Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: All-Spanish Final in Marbella, Taro Daniel Finds Form

Pedro Martinez in action on the ATP Challenger Tour

The European clay-court swing is coming to an end, with just one more clay-court tournament in Europe, an indoor clay event in Maia, Portugal in the last week of the season, although there will be clay-court action in South America for specialists on that surface. But there was plenty of entertaining action last week in Marbella on the clay, whilst in Hamburg physical issues saw a one-sided final. Here’s a recap of this week’s ATP Challenger Tour action:

ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Hamburg

Sebastian Ofner had not made any truly standout runs since the season resumed, but he had posted solid results, making two Challenger Tour quarterfinals in Prague and Istanbul. The Austrian also pushed Diego Schwartzman very hard at the tour-level Kitzbuhel Open, making it clear that it was only a matter of time before the results would come. In Hamburg, they arrived. Ofner kicked off his campaign against the always tricky Dustin Brown, winning in straight-sets.

Ofner then got a solid win over the recent Roland Garros sensation, Hugo Gaston, also in straight-sets, before dropping his first set of the week to Roman Safiullin, but ultimately prevailing 7-6 4-6 6-4 in a little over two hours. That set up a semifinal clash with the top-seeded Kamil Majchrzak, who he is coincidentally also due to face in the opening round of the Eckental Challenger next week. In Hamburg, there was initially little to split them, but Offner was the better player in the first-set tiebreak.

He won that and then remained composed to take down the Pole, who looked completely lost after losing the close first set. Taro Daniel, the second seed, waited for Ofner in the final. But the Japanese, seeded second in Hamburg, almost certainly wasn’t happy with the draw he received, having to face some dangerous unseeded floaters in the early rounds. Arthur Rinderknech is developing at a great pace and has captured two Challenger titles this year (Calgary and Rennes), whilst Maximilian Marterer is a former world #45.

But Daniel, who faced Rinderknech and Marterer in his first two matches, was able to perform at his best level from the get-go, managing to beat both in deciding sets. He then impressed in dismissing Henri Laaksonen comfortably to set up what looked like a blockbuster semifinal against last week’s Ismaning runner-up Botic Van de Zandschulp. But the Dutchman tested positive for COVID-19 and had to go into isolation, leaving him unable to contest the semifinal.

In the final, Offner really struggled to get going, committing a costly number of unforced errors in the first few games, with Daniel just staying in the rallies, using his  consistent cross-court backhand and waiting for the Austrian to implode. That said, the Japanese has to be given credit for avoiding Ofner’s hitting zones and keeping him uncomfortable off the ground. The Austrian did appear to have settled into the match after winning a stunning rally in the sixth game with a great lob, but a second break of serve soon followed.

Daniel served out the set shortly thereafter, with Ofner taking a medical timeout before the second set started. There were some encouraging signs for the Austrian early on, as he started to dictate more with his topspin forehand. But he was clearly feeling unwell and Daniel reasserted his dominance, finding himself 6-1 5-2 40-0 up on serve. Ofner suddenly started swinging freely with his forehand, saving a total of four match points, but it was too little too late.

At the fifth time of asking, Daniel sealed his victory as Ofner succumbed to his opponent’s relentless consistency. Whilst he didn’t really have to do much in the final, this run will surely still be a confidence-builder for Daniel. He arrived in Hamburg having won just two matches in the eight events he had played since the restart, but was able to capture his second Challenger title of the year after triumphing in Burnie at the beginning of the season and the seventh of his career overall.

It is also his second title after teaming up with the esteemed coach Sven Groeneveld, who has previously worked with the likes of Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas and Mario Ancic, at the end of 2019. Daniel will now enjoy a week of rest, whilst Ofner, as mentioned above, will open his campaign in Eckental against Kamil Majchrzak, although given how worn out and ill he looked on Sunday, there is some doubt as to whether or not he will play.

Marbella

Both the finalists in Marbella had made headlines in the previous weeks on the ATP Challenger Tour, with Jaume Munar winning a title two weeks before in Lisbon, where he defeated home favorite Pedro Sousa in the final. Pedro Martinez, meanwhile, who recently made the French Open third round, also took part in a Challenger Tour final two weeks ago, although unlike Munar, Martinez lost his to the rising star, Carlos Alcaraz, in Alicante.

Munar’s previous outing saw struggle on hard courts in Istanbul, but getting back to clay clearly brought out the best in his game. Seeded sixth, the Spaniard had to come through a tough opener against Trieste runner-up Ricardo Bonadio. The Italian is playing better tennis than his ranking would suggest and it was only due to his grit and determination that Munar was able to prevail 7-6 5-7 6-3. But as often seems to happen, a tough first-round battle helped Munar find a groove.

Thereafter, he was imperious, sending home Lorenzo Giustino, Vit Kopriva and Alexandre Muller without breaking much of a sweat or losing a set. Martinez, who had elected to take a week off after his run in Alicante, arrived at Marbella refreshed and, having notched some excellent results throughout the season, Martinez was once again in fine form. He dropped just one set on his way to the final, to Blaz Rola in the quarterfinals.

He was hugely impressive in dismissing his compatriots Carlos Taberner and Mario Vilella Martinez, delivering top-notch displays that showcased that Martinez does not really belong at Challenger-level anymore. In fact, Martinez would now find himself firmly in the top 40 of the world if the ATP rankings were based on just the points earned in the 2020 season, and from the beginning of the final, it was clear that Martinez was intent on remaining aggressive and stamping his authority on the match.

He tried to use his forehand to pin Munar behind the baseline before hitting a winner into the open space or deploying a well-disguised dropshot. He did not have things all his own way, however, with Munar one of the more effective counter-punchers at this level. Munar retrieved well enough to consistently make Martinez play an extra shot, running down a lot of balls that would have been hit for clean winners against most others.

He was rewarded for his industry with a break in the opening game, but the match always seemed likely to turn into a dogfight. Martinez soon broke back from 1-2 40-0 down with some excellent drop shots and well-built points where he used his inside-out forehand into Munar’s backhand to good effect. The first set then went with serve, with mostly straightforward service holds, but the majority of rallies were long and clearly took a lot out of both players.

But at 5-5, Munar made his move. He forced a break point, which Martinez saved by surprising Munar with a sudden serve-and-volley, but Munar created a second break point opportunity and this time he took the initiative. He came to the net behind a deep approach shot to Martinez’s forehand and then finished the point with a great reflex volley. That left him to serve for the set, but Martinez took a medical timeout for what was apparently an issue with his right arm.

Whether it was genuine or tactical only Martinez will know, but it certainly hampered Munar’s momentum. Munar made uncharacteristic errors as he served for it, including missing a smash and a double fault to give away the break and send the first set to a tiebreak. With the match already over an hour old, Martinez appeared to be flagging physically and it was perhaps tiredness that led to him attempting an awful drop shot to hand Munar the first minibreak.

But somehow, Martinez managed to dig in and fight back, recovering the minibreak with a brilliantly executed approach to the net and a volley that just clipped the line. The key moment came in the tenth point, with Martinez 5-4 up. In another extended rally, it was again the second-seeded Martinez who was willing to step in and dictate. He fired an inside-in forehand winner beyond Munar to force two set points. Munar then made a straightforward backhand error to lose the opener after 94 minutes of play.

Munar did create a triple breakpoint in the second game of the next set, but once again Martinez showcased great ability to compete under pressure, saving all three. And when his  opening came at 2-2, he did not miss out. Painting the lines with his forehand, Martinez forced three break points and Munar wasn’t able to dig himself out of the 0-40 hole. He fell a break behind and the match then quickly ran away from him as Martinez broke again before clinching the trophy with a 7-6 6-2 win, having won the last five games.

For Martinez, it was just the second Challenger Tour title of his career (Bastad 2018), but his win has taken him to a new career-high ranking of world #82 in the ATP Rankings. However, because of his run to the title he was forced to withdraw from the qualifying for the final ATP Masters 1000 event of the season in Paris. As a result, both he and Munar will not be in action this week. His next scheduled appearance will come at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Bratislava, which starts on the 9th of November.

Challenger Tour magic:

It’s not easy to play a behind the back volley and win the point:

Well, he ended up losing his opening round to Lorenzo Giustino, but Carlos Alcaraz will at least have this tweener to remember:

Events held next week:

  • Challenger Eckental (Challenger 100)
  • Internazionali di Tennis Citta di Parma (Challenger 80)

No top 100 players will be in action on the ATP Challenger Tour this week. Kamil Majchrzak is the top seed in Eckental, while Gregoire Barrere leads the field in Parma. This Italian city has already hosted a Challenger event this year, as Frances Tiafoe triumphed over Salvatore Caruso on clay courts. This second event is held on an indoor hard surface.

First round matches to watch:

Eckental:

  •  (1) Kamil Majchrzak vs Sebastian Ofner
  • (WC) Maximilian Marterer vs Marc-Andrea Huesler
  • Jurij Rodionov vs Ernests Gulbis
  • (PR) Dustin Brown vs (3) Ilya Ivashka
  • (7) Sebastian Korda vs Tomas Machac

Parma:

  • (3) J J Wolf vs Blaz Kavcic
  • Maxime Janvier vs (8) Maxime Cressy
  • (7) Cedrik-Marcel Stebe vs (WC) Andrea Pellegrino
  • (5) Federico Gaio vs Quentin Halys

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.