Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Ninth Time’s the Charm for Sebastian Korda

Sebastian Korda in action on the Challenger Tour

Just four weeks remain before the 2020 ATP Challenger Tour comes to an end and the players will get to rest up and train in the off-season. The European indoor circuit continues in Bratislava, while the United States gets its first event since Indian Wells. It will be held in Cary, North Carolina. But back to this week’s action…

Eckental

After reaching the fourth round at the 2020 French Open, 20-year-old Sebastian Korda decided to play the European indoor circuit. Having lost to eventual champion Marc-Andrea Huesler on the carpet courts in Ismaning, he next competed in another event played on this surface in Eckental. Korda faced a tough draw from the very beginning, taking on an up-and-coming Czech Tomas Machac in the opening round.

The son of the 1998 Australian Open champion was just a point away from losing the opening set but managed to come back and win the match in straights. Korda was then taken to three sets by a German qualifier, Johannes Haerteis. The American was yet to find his groove but when he did, it was amazing. His performances to take down 2nd seed Alexei Popyrin and 3rd seed Ilya Ivashka were of absolutely top-quality.

Interestingly, Korda managed to reach his ninth final on the professional circuit. With two runner-up appearances on the ATP Challenger Tour and six on the ITF World Tennis Tour, the youngster was still seeking his first title since finishing his junior career.

Facing him in the championship match was Ramkumar Ramanathan, also yet to win an ATP Challenger Tour event despite four final appearances. The Indian has had an absolutely dreadful year, having won consecutive matches at just one event and owned a win/loss record of 4-15.

The carpet courts in Eckental brought the perfect remedy for his game and after solid wins over Duje Ajdukovic and Hiroki Moriya, Ramanathan’s confidence began to return. Most impressive was definitely his 6-2 6-1 routing of fourth seed Evgeny Donskoy in the quarterfinals. In the final four, Ramanathan lost a set for the first time in the event but was able to regain control of the match against a 21-year-old German qualifier, Marvin Moeller.

Before we go to the description of Sunday’s final, there are two more Germans that deserve a mention. Both of these players received a wildcard for the event. 22-year-old Mats Rosenkranz scored a 6-2 6-2 win over Martin Klizan, which certainly proved his defeat of Maxime Cressy in Ismaning wasn’t a coincidence. Yet, the talented German couldn’t keep up that level and had a really bad day at the office against Marvin Moeller in the second round.

Even younger, 17-year-old Max Hans Rehberg scored his first ATP Challenger Tour win over Teymuraz Gabashvili (via retirement, at 7-6 5-2 up) after coming really close to achieving that against Lukas Lacko in Ismaning. Rehberg was then able to play a great game against Evgeny Donskoy but ultimately lost a nerve-racking third-set tie-break, having wasted two match points on serve.

As for the championship match, Ramanathan had the more aggressive gameplan, trying to approach the net a lot and keep the points short. His serve-and-volley approaches had a very mixed turnout though and in game seven of the opening set, he lost three points at the net to fall behind in his service game.

Korda added to that a brilliant return one-two punch and took the break, which turned out decisive. Serving it out was a big struggle though as the Indian kept Korda guessing with his knifing backhand slice and big forehand returns. The American’s timing was a bit off in that game but he didn’t back off, keeping Ramanathan under pressure on the three break points he had to fend off. However, the Indian has only himself to blame for not making two very straightforward forehand passes.

In contrast, Korda’s passing shots were really on point most of the time. The American was able to keep his returns low and not allow his opponent easy volleys after the serves. At 2-2 in the second set, Korda broke again after Ramanathan couldn’t get the volley over the net on a risky second serve approach. The Indian was certain that his first delivery was in though and spent the whole changeover talking to the umpire about the galore of bad calls that, according to himself, were wrong in the entire match.

At first, Korda didn’t seem too rattled as he opened up a 40-0 lead in the next game. But Ramanathan really loosened up on his forehand side and started blasting winner after winner to win five points in a row and break back.

But the Indian soon blew a similar lead, allowing the American to serve for the match. Allowing is perhaps not the right word to use though, as Korda’s return reached just another level in that stretch of five consecutive points. The 20-year-old used the power of Ramanathan’s serve to come up with extremely fast block returns that made it almost impossible for the Indian to make it to the net in time to get a clean putaway volley. The American didn’t blink this time around and went on to serve out the match to 15, 6-4 6-4.

Despite being a very successful junior player (2018 Australian Open champion), Korda was yet to win a title in his pro career. The youngster made six finals on the ITF World Tennis Tour and two on the ATP Challenger Tour (Nur-Sultan and Champaign last year), losing all eight. It’s hard to say if it was a bit of a mental block for him at this point but it certainly makes this victory taste even better for him.

As for Ramanathan, it was his first Challenger Tour final in over 2,5 years and he was also yet to win one after four previous failures. His search will continue in Orlando in two weeks. Korda was supposed to play in Bratislava next week but pulled out following his great run here and will also feature in that very same Challenger event. On Monday, the American will reach a career-high ranking of world no. 116.

Parma

Liam Broady has hit a very rich vein of form after the restart (with the highlight being coming through the qualifying draw at Roland Garros) and while he recently failed to qualify for tour-level events in Antwerp and Nur-Sultan, he proved this week that he’s one of the most in-form players on the Challenger circuit right now. The Brit was able to defeat Blaz Kavcic in the second round, before coming up against possibly the best serve-and-volleyer on the tour, Maxime Cressy.

The big-serving American didn’t face a single breakpoint in the whole match but Broady was the better player in two tie-breaks, finding a way to triumph 7-6 4-6 7-6 in an extremely fast-paced match that lasted only (because of the high number of games played) two hours and eighteen minutes. In the semifinals, he faced 32-year-old Andrea Arnaboldi, who entered the event as a lucky loser. Arnaboldi was able to impress with his beautiful volleying technique but ultimately, it was Broady who came back from a set down and forced the Italian to rally more and more off the ground. That gave the Brit a fifth ATP Challenger Tour final. Just like the aforementioned Ramanathan, he lost all the previous four.

Having reached a career-high ranking of world no. 71 in 2012, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe has had to battle a multitude of injuries that hampered his tennis career. The German even fell out of the ATP Rankings twice in the last four years and it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of quality. Having reached the quarterfinals the previous week at Hamburg, Stebe chose the event in Italy, instead of his native Germany, presumably because of not feeling that well on the slick carpet surface.

That decision paid off dividends, although, in the opening round, he had to come back from a set down to defeat a very dangerous Italian wildcard, Andrea Pellegrino. Stebe went on to beat Kimmer Coppejans and Roberto Marcora, impressing in the first one with great play in pivotal moments and defeating another very dangerous home player (Marcora beat Forli Challenger champion and one of the most talented teenagers in the world, Lorenzo Musetti, earlier in the event) in the second match.

His semifinal opponent was Quentin Halys, riding on borrowed time after saving six match points to beat Federico Gaio in the first round. Stebe was the one to finally put an end to the Frenchman’s impressive run as he advanced to his first Challenger Tour final in three years with a 5-7 6-3 6-3 win.

In the first all-lefty Challenger final since April 2019 (which also featured Broady), it was Stebe who struck first, breaking serve in the fifth game of the opening set. Broady’s backhand is extremely hard to break down but his forehand is not quite at that level and the German was able to work his way around it to link together four points on Broady’s serve. The Brit had a tiny chance in the last game of the first set as he got to a 30-0 lead on Stebe’s serve. But that’s when the German really showcased his ability to generate pace off his forehand and constructed the rallies well to run away with the opener.

Broady was in trouble from the very beginning of the second set, forced to save break points in his first two service games. Stebe was very comfortable rallying forehand to forehand with the Brit, made smarter shot selections, and had a lot more options to accelerate and up the pace out of nowhere.

Broady was really forced to come out of his comfort zone to find a way to stay in the match and he fought like a lion but ultimately, he couldn’t get a volley over the net on the tenth break point opportunity of the set. Stebe created two more break points in Broady’s next service game and while he couldn’t convert them (going 2/14 on BPs in the whole match), creating these chances turned out to be the key.

The Brit was unable to touch his opponents’ delivery and despite the fact that Stebe wasn’t really hitting a crazy number of aces or unreturnable serves, he only averaged one point per game on return and couldn’t create a single opportunity to break. Stebe went on to serve out the match 6-4, coming back from 0-30 down just like in the first set.

For Liam Broady, it was a fifth ATP Challenger Tour final and the Brit is also yet to win a title on this circuit. But he should still be delighted to see his hard work paying off and on Monday, he’ll see his name in the top 200 of the ATP Rankings again after dropping out of that elite group of players in August 2018.

Broady is also set to compete in Bratislava next week and if he decides to play, he’ll kick off against two-time champion of the circuit this year, Arthur Rinderknech. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe has secured a firm spot not that much behind the best hundred in the world. The German captured his ninth ATP Challenger Tour title and will be the new world no. 121 in the next edition of the ATP Rankings

Challenger Tour magic:

A couple of fine points from the Eckental champion who clearly knew what he had to do when Popyrin was at the net:

Another very talented Italian youngster, coming up with a shot that Cressy just can’t have expected:

Events held next week:

  • Slovak Open (Bratislava, Challenger 80)
  • Cary Challenger (Challenger 80)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Emil Ruusuvuori (Bratislava)
  • Thiago Monteiro (Cary)

1st round matches to watch out for:

Bratislava

  • Arthur Rinderknech vs Liam Broady
  • (SE) Andrea Arnaboldi vs (6) Nikola Milojevic
  • (5) Henri Laaksonen vs Botic van de Zandschulp
  • Maxime Cressy vs Roberto Marcora
  • Lukas Lacko vs Sergiy Stakhovsky
  • Blaz Rola vs (2) Yasutaka Uchiyama

Cary

  • (1) Thiago Monteiro vs Guilherme Clezar
  • Thai-Son Kwiatkowski vs Brandon Nakashima
  • Bjorn Fratangelo vs Jack Sock
  • Elias Ymer vs Mitchell Krueger
  • Thomaz Bellucci vs Mohamed Safwat

Main Photo:


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