Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Marterer and Kudla End Title Droughts

Denis Kudla in action on the ATP Challenger Tour

With the ATP 250 Sofia Open the only main tour action this week, fans had more time than usual to follow the ATP Challenger Tour. The European indoor swing continued in the Slovakian capital Bratislava, whilst in the United States the first Challenger since March was held in Cary. Here’s a recap of what you might have missed:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Bratislava

The champion in Koblenz in February, 20-year-old Tomas Machac has been making strides towards the top of the game. The Czech qualified into the main draw at Roland Garros, but was beaten in the first round in five sets by Taylor Fritz. He backed that up by reaching the second round as a qualifier in Parma and the quarterfinals in Alicante. In his last outing, he lost in the first round to Sebastian Korda in the first round in Eckental, but in his defence, the American went on to win the title.

In Bratislava, Machac once again had to come through the qualifying, beating 18-year-old Michal Novansky for the loss of only one game before being made to work slightly harder for his 6-3 7-6 win over Mats Rosenkranz. But Machac really came into his own in the main draw. He opened his campaign with a 6-4 6-4 win over Brayden Schnur before impressing in a 7-6 5-7 6-1 win against third seed Kamil Majchrzak in the second round.

The Czech did not drop another set in reaching the final, beating Italy’s Matteo Viola and Slovakian wildcard Lukas Klein in straight sets to book his place in the title match. But Klein’s efforts should not go without mention. The Slovakian enjoyed a week to remember in Bratislava, holding serve 29 times in a row as he beat Filip Horansky, Lorenzo Giustino and top seed Emil Ruusuvuori to reach the semifinals.

Waiting for Machac on the other side of the net was former-world #45 Maximilian Marterer. The German missed the second half of the 2019 season due to injury, but he has posted some solid results since returning to action in January and is clearly a better player than his current ranking of 242nd in the world suggests. Still, he arrived at the Slovak Open having not reached a final since beating Constant Lestienne to win the Cherbourg Challenger in February 2018.

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His run in Bratislava went slightly under the radar, in part because he faced only one seed, Antoine Hoang, who he beat 6-3 6-4 in the semifinals. But Marterer’s level was nonetheless impressive and, remarkably, the German reached the final without being broken, winning all 31 of his service games in victories over Julian Lenz, Blaz Rola and Hoang without even facing a break point. (He benefitted from a walkover in the quarterfinals after Sergiy Stakhovsky tested positive for COVID-19.)

Unsurprisingly, the fast indoor conditions in Bratislava, which had given an advantage to the server all week, continued to favour the player at the line in the final, with the first nine games going with serve in straightforward fashion. But with Machac serving to stay in the set down 4-5, Marterer made his move. The German forced five set points, but proved unable to convert, thanks to some efficient serving from Machac and two glaring errors from Marterer.

That proved to be his only chance of the set, which ultimately went to a tiebreak. Machac took an early lead, twice getting the better of Marterer in a backhand battle, before earning the decisive minibreak with a stunning forehand winner up the line that gave him what proved to be an unassailable 6-3 advantage. But although the player who wins the tiebreak usually picks up momentum heading into the next set, Marterer flipped the script.

Thanks to a pair of superb forehand winners, Marterer broke his opponent’s serve in the first game of the second set. Clearly the player in the ascendancy, Marterer broke again to take a 3-0 lead, passing Machac with a short-angled backhand winner. The Czech tried to battle back into contention, but Marterer was winning his service games easily, whereas Machac no longer seemed to be able to rely on free points from his own serve.

However, although Marterer wrapped up the second set comfortably, the profligacy that likely cost him the first set continued to plague him. In the first game of the decider, he wasted a break point when he sent a return long before letting Machac off the hook when he squandered a 0-30 advantage in the 20-year-old’s next service game. But with Machac having to fight for his life just to hold serve, the pressure eventually told in the seventh game of the third set.

Machac’s forehand misfired and Marterer finally seized his opportunity to break serve. And, considering his own untouchable performance from the line, it looked like a done deal for the German. But Machac refused to go quietly into the night. He managed to scramble more balls back into play before setting up two break points with a delicate backhand lob. Facing break points for the first time, Marterer netted a forehand on the run to let the Czech back into the match.

But Marterer recovered from the setback almost instantly. After the pair traded holds, Marterer forced another breakpoint at 5-5 and he was in no mood to mess around this time, slamming home a forehand return that Machac could not get back across the net. Serving for the match, Marterer made no mistake, closing out his win with a hold to 15 to secure the seventh Challenger Tour title of his career, and his first for over two-and-a-half years.

Machac, meanwhile, secured himself a new career-high ranking and a debut in the top 200. Ironically, that will leave him a couple of spots ahead of Marterer, but with the German having been ranked as low as 379th in the world as recently as February, one suspects he will not be unduly concerned by that. Both men will be in main-draw action in Ortisei this week, with Marterer set to open his campaign against third seed Aslan Karatsev whilst Machac faces Italian wildcard Luca Nardi.

Cary

Heading into the Cary Challenger in North Carolina, it hadn’t been a great season for Prajnesh Gunneswaran. The Indian had won consecutive matches just twice (Australian Open qualifying and the Ismaning Challenger) and, as a result, he arrived in the United States a man in need of results. But his decision to travel to North America paid off immediately, largely thanks to his ability to pull out wins in nerve-racking situations

After his campaign started with a solid victory over Peter Polansky, Gunneswaran came up against Jack Sock in the second round. Gunneswaran served for the match against the American, who has been ranked as high as world #8, but was broken, before ultimately scraping through after winning the deciding tiebreak 7-5. He then found himself 3-6 3-5 down against Thomaz Bellucci before storming back into contention.

But he flirted with disaster once again when he lost five of the first six points in the third-set tiebreak. But not to be denied, Gunneswaran won six points in a row to advance to the semifinals. There he received some respite after a tough start to the week when Mikael Torpegaard was forced to withdraw before their match having torn a muscle in his knee. That sent him into his first final of the season, where he faced second seed Denis Kudla.

Kudla had been without a win since the season restarted, but he found a rich vein of form in Cary. And, like Marterer in Bratislava, Kudla reached the final in Cary without dropping serve, recording straightforward wins over Kevin King, Garrett Johns and Dmitry Popko to secure his place in the last four. There, Daniel Elahi Galan won a tightly contested first set in a tiebreak, only for Kudla to rally to win 6-7 6-1 6-4.

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But, like Marterer in Bratislava, Kudla wasn’t able to maintain his unbroken streak of service holds. With a strong wind blowing, Gunneswaran was better able to adapt to the inclement conditions, winning ten straight points and breaking his opponent’s serve to love to lead 2-1. Indeed, Kudla looked flat early on, perhaps as a result of his hard-fought win in the semifinals. But Gunneswaran then found himself struggling when hitting into the wind after the change of ends.

But Gunneswaran restored his advantage by breaking again after another changeover, before securing the only hold of the opening set when hitting into the wind, ending the set after a superbly executed approach to the net was followed by a great drop volley. Unfortunately for Gunneswaran, that was as good as it got for him. Kudla raised his level in the second set and Gunneswaran proved unable to offer much further resistance.

Some fabulous tennis (see below in the Challenger Tour magic section) saw Kudla go a double break up in the second set and his confidence appeared to skyrocket. Gunneswaran did manage to retrieve one of the breaks, but Kudla was no longer allowing his opponent to dictate with his forehand, but was instead taking the initiative himself. By the time the American had levelled the match by winning the second set, it had become something of a mismatch and Kudla dominated the decider.

He lost just six points, one in each game, as he bagelled Gunneswaran, who had little will left to fight, to complete a 3-6 6-3 6-0 win and claim his seventh Challenger Tour title. It was Kudla’s first win at this level since he triumphed in Drummondville in March, 2018, and will surely mark a welcome return to form for Kudla, who has struggled for much of this season. Both he and Gunneswaran will be back in action on the Challenger Tour in Orlando this week.

Challenger Tour magic:

One of Kudla’s hot shots from the final:

That’s the footwork that saw Jack Sock rise to world #8 three years ago:

If Kudla says so himself, who are we to decide?

Events held next week:

Next week, indoor action will continue in the Italian Dolomites at the Ortisei Challenger, which is home to one of the fastest courts on the circuit. Clay-court specialists, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to return to action on their preferred surface, with a three-week clay-court swing set to commence in South America in Guayaquil.

  • Challenger Ciudad de Guayaquil (Challenger 80)
  • Orlando Open (Challenger 80)
  • Sparkassen ATP Challenger (Ortisei, Challenger 80)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Pablo Cuevas, Federico Coria (Guayaquil)
  • Thiago Monteiro (Orlando)

First round matches to watch:

Guayaquil:

  • Juan Pablo Ficovich vs (4) Jaume Munar
  • (5) Pedro Sousa vs Tomas Martin Etcheverry

Orlando:

  • Elias Ymer vs Chun-Hsin Tseng
  • Thai-Son Kwiatkowski vs Christopher Eubanks

Ortisei:

  • (4) Lorenzo Musetti vs Roberto Marcora
  • Arthur Rinderknech vs Antoine Hoang
  • Maximilian Marterer vs (3) Aslan Karatsev

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


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