Almost everyone’s attention was focused on Melbourne this week and the first rounds of the 2021 Australian Open. The Challenger Tour never sleeps though and as always, it delivered three events just packed with action and interesting storylines. Among them was a return to the circuit from a certain former World No. 1…
One story overshadowed anything else this week and that was Andy Murray‘s showing in Biella. Only the second time the Brit has played the Challenger Tour in the last 15 years, Murray was drawn a very tough first-round opponent in former World No. 45 Maximilian Marterer. The German was probably among the strongest players in the draw and he confirmed that by taking the opening set off Murray. The Brit did what he does best though and kept on fighting, coming back to win in three. He was then able to cruise to the final without losing more sets, although Matthias Bourgue and Blaz Rola managed to keep some of them very close.
His championship match opponent was another former top 50 tennis
YouTuber player, Illya Marchenko (in all seriousness, make sure to check out the channel as there’s some good content there, shedding some more light on the life of a pro). The Ukrainian is pretty far off his best days (US Open fourth round) but he remains a solid competitor on the Challenger circuit. Especially indoors, Marchenko has made a few deep runs over the past year or so, including a quarterfinal at Quimper this year. He only lost a single set during the week, taking a nervy 7-5 decider against Federico Gaio.
With two opponents whose qualities include grit and determination, the final was expected to be a battle. Sadly, that wasn’t really the case. Marchenko was onto Murray from the get-go, using his heavy baseline shots to overpower the Brit. His serve also worked great for the most part, firing a total of nine aces and never really looking close to getting broken. Marchenko played a near perfect match, not losing his concentration for even a moment.
This win allows Marchenko to return to the top 200 next Monday. Both him and Murray will stay in Biella for another week as the Ukrainian received special exempt to join the main draw. Marchenko takes on promising Italian youngster Giulio Zeppieri, while Murray will play Federico Gaio in the opening round.
Two Frenchmen were doing very well at home in Cherbourg and looked on the course to meet in the championship match. Arthur Rinderknech already owns a title from Istanbul this year and kept doing well with wins over Evan Furness and Constant Lestienne to advance to the semifinals. On the other side of the draw, Hugo Gaston had a good patch of play. The 20-year-old, who made headlines by beating Stan Wawrinka at last year’s Roland Garros, started his 2021 campaign with three opening-round losses. He was finally able to get going here, taking out players like Julian Lenz and Peter Gojowczyk.
Both Rinderknech and Gaston were upset in the semifinals though and lost at the expense of two veterans who haven’t been doing that well recently. 33-year-old Ruben Bemelmans was yet to win a match this year but as he got rolling, his level started massively improving throughout the week. In the semifinal against Rinderknech, he was able to expose the Frenchman’s backhand limitations and keep him in that corner with the lefty forehand topspin.
Gaston got thrown out by the 35-year-old Lukas Rosol, who also lost his previous three matches. Once the 26th ranked player in the world, the Czech looked down and out in the third set tie-break against Alex Molcan. But as his opponent double-faulted on one of two match points (the other one being Rosol’s unreturned serve), the Czech was able to progress and make three massive upsets in a row. All of them went the distance as Antoine Hoang made it all the way to 7-5 in the third and beating Kacper Zuk required another deciding tie-break.
Bemelmans had a similar gameplan as in the Rinderknech match, trying to keep Rosol at bay in his backhand corner. The Czech has more firepower on that wing than the Frenchman but his consistency is rather limited. On top of that, Bemelmans served at an incredible 82% in the opener, only losing two points on serve (one through a double fault). Meanwhile, Rosol struggled to hold that easily and finally got broken at 4-4 after a long rally where he was forced to constantly defend with the slice.
Bemelmans’s percentages went down in the second set and he quickly added to his number of double faults. Rosol had a great opportunity in the second game already, going up 40-0 on his opponent’s serve. But as it turned out, this was the crucial moment of the final. The Belgian saved all four breakpoints and stopped the comeback attempt in its roots. Soon enough, he was able to break again as Rosol started rushing his groundstrokes to remain in control.
That pretty much sealed the deal as Bemelmans had no issues serving out the match 6-4 6-4. The Belgian scored his sixth ATP Challenger Tour title and the first one in over four years (Koblenz 2017). That win should allow him to come back to the top 200 next Monday, the first time since September 2019.
Two qualifiers stole the show in the event, one being 28-year-old Nick Chappell, a former reasonably successful college player for the Texas Christian University. The American scored a massive upset in the qualifying draw already, taking out the 19-year-old talent Jack Draper. In the opening round, Chappell saved a match point against Nicola Kuhn in a bizarre match with a two-hour rain delay in the middle of the deciding tie-break. He found a way to prevail and made his first Challenger Tour semifinal later in the week, before losing to the second seed Benjamin Bonzi, the recent Istanbul runner-up.
The other qualifier went a step further. Liam Broady doesn’t have to qualify for Challenger Tour events with his current ranking but as he originally didn’t sign up for the first event in Potchefstroom but was at the venue already, he was able to pick up an alternate spot. That late sign-up turned out to be a great decision as the Brit did not lose a single set in six matches on his way to the final, taking out players like 5th seeded Brayden Schnur or 6th seeded Cem Ilkel, the latter in the semifinal stage.
Bonzi was the first player to take a lead in Sunday’s final, going up a break as Broady’s lefty forehand couldn’t find the court a few times. While the Frenchman couldn’t serve out the set, he would take the next two games anyway as Broady couldn’t clean up the errors in his game, giving away the break by missing a putaway volley. Bonzi’s consistency and court coverage really shined as he was able to lure out the mistakes time and time again. The Frenchman once again had some issues getting over the line (perhaps because of having failed three times before at this stage) but ultimately took the title 7-5 6-4.
It was a maiden ATP Challenger Tour title for Bonzi, who lost all three finals he played at that level before (Drummondville 2018, Bangalore 2020, Istanbul 2021). He’s been the best player of the Challenger circuit in 2021 thus far and owns a 13-3 win/loss record. The Frenchman continues to advance in the ATP Rankings and when the next edition is published (Monday after the Australian Open), he should find himself situated around the 125th spot. Unless he can add to his tally in the second event in Potchefstroom where he’s starting against a qualifier.
Broady is also in the draw, this time as the fourth seed and will play Viktor Galovic. The Brit’s search for a Challenger Trophy will continue as Broady lost all six finals he contested at this level (Charlottesville 2014, Aptos 2017, Las Vegas 2017, Leon 2019, Parma 2020, Potchefstroom 2021).
Challenger Tour magic:
The doubles game sometimes allows for some truly incredible shots round the netpost:
Around the post!
🇳🇱 Jesper de Jong finds the angle in Potchefstroom.@TennisSA | @KNLTB pic.twitter.com/aW7nfYvXrj
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) February 10, 2021
Blaz Rola couldn’t take a set off Murray but he gave a tremendous fight:
Semi-final bound in Biella 💪
Highlights of @andy_murray's gritty two-hour and 20-minute victory over Blaz Rola. ⬇️⬇️ pic.twitter.com/6xp84VGUk6
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) February 12, 2021
Events held next week:
- Biella Challenger Indoor II (Challenger 125)
- Potchefstroom Open II (Challenger 80)
- Challenger Concepcion (Challenger 80)
Last week’s tournament in Biella was a Challenger 80 event and therefore this one will have a much stronger field. South American clay-court specialists will get their first chance to play on their continent this year. The next one will be in March, also in Chile.
Top 100 players in action:
- Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Sebastian Korda, Soon-Woo Kwon (Biella)
- Federico Coria (Concepcion)
First-round matches to watch:
- Federico Gaio vs Andy Murray
- Roberto Marcora vs Henri Laaksonen
- Yannick Maden vs (6) Antoine Hoang
- (1) Prajnesh Gunneswaran vs Akira Santillan
- (WC) Khololwam Montsi vs (6) Brayden Schnur
- (3) Pedro Sousa vs Nicolas Jarry
- (WC) Gonzalo Lama vs Sebastian Baez
- Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves vs (4) Hugo Dellien