Forget about multimillionaires battling each other in the Australian Open final. The real struggle is here and it’s been another fascinating week at the ATP Challenger Tour. Soon-Woo Kwon made a great return to the circuit, while Sebastian Baez and Jenson Brooksby added to the growing list of Next-Gen winners of 2021. Read back on this week’s action.
Lorenzo Musetti is struggling to perform his best tennis indoors, mostly due to requiring a lot of time to set up his strokes. The young Italian was still able to advance far in the draw at Biella, taking advantage of some very messy performances from dangerous opponents like Lukas Lacko or Ernests Gulbis. Instead of going for his usual tactical plan, Musetti would focus much more on putting the ball back in play and stop going for low-percentage shots. In the semifinals, he managed to take out Andreas Seppi in an all-Italian clash between a future and a former great.
His rival turned out to be the third seed Soon-Woo Kwon, who came back to the Challenger Tour after 13 months of competing at the highest level only. The Korean came to Biella all guns blazing, serving demolitions to competent indoor players like Roberto Marcora or Yannick Maden. His first blip came in the semifinals, as Kwon couldn’t serve out the match against Evgeny Donskoy and lost the second set in a tie-breaker. He did well to regroup though and took the third set 6-1 to secure his first final in almost two years.
Unfortunately, the final didn’t live up to the hype at all. Musetti’s run coincided with a couple of subpar performances from his opponents and that wasn’t the case in the semifinals. Kwon was able to rush Musetti and expose his inability to perform his best tennis indoors from the get-go. The Korean was a class above the field throughout the week and deservedly added a third Challenger title to his count (Yokohama and Seoul 2019).
Musetti’s final run gets him a step closer to the top 100, making a new career-high of 115. The Italian will be the top seed at a Challenger event in Gran Canaria next week (starting against a qualifier), while Kwon is due to participate in a tour-level event in Singapore.
Jenson Brooksby made headlines when he beat Tomas Berdych at the 2019 US Open, the former World No. 5’s last match of his career. Despite that success, the youngster signed up to play college tennis for Baylor University. Brooksby was haunted by injuries throughout last year and couldn’t compete in a single match for his team. That also gave him the time to rethink his decision and he decided to drop out and go pro. His comeback started with a semifinal run at M25 in Villena two weeks ago before he came to Potchefstroom for a two-week stint at the Challenger Tour.
Having never reached the quarterfinal stage at a Challenger event before, Brooksby completely outperformed his record by going all the way to the final this week. The second round saw him play Benjamin Bonzi, arguably the best performer of the 2021 circuit thus far. Brooksby managed to take out the Frenchman, who showed signs of fatigue after competing in every week of the season until then. The American went on to upset Cem Ilkel, taking revenge for an opening-round loss in the first week at Potchefstroom.
Last week’s runner-up Liam Broady seemed to be on his way to make another Challenger Tour final, before a surprise semifinal exit to Teymuraz Gabashvili. The 35-year-old Russian hadn’t played a final at this stage in almost four years and advanced to the second round in suspicious circumstances. Somehow, Gabashvili was able to raise his level and make it to the championship match despite losing a set in each round.
As much as the Russian’s level was wildly inconsistent throughout the week, the final saw him get off to an extremely fast start. Gabashvili started hitting with extreme pace off both wings and kept rushing Brooksby, not allowing him to settle down. The first sign of an incoming momentum shift was the game at 5-2 up as Gabashvili struggled to serve out the first set. While he managed to do that, Brooksby was clearly getting more and more comfortable.
The Russian had break points in his rival’s next two service games but wasn’t unable to convert. His powerful shots didn’t find the court with such accuracy as before and Brooksby was able to take the initiative a lot more. Not taking these opportunities proved pivotal and shaped the dynamics of the match for the next hour to come. Gabashvili grew increasingly frustrated, arguing with the umpire about a late call. By the end of the third set, the Russian was completely lost on the court and didn’t win a single game in the third set. The players could rush to the hotel in time to catch the last two sets of the Australian Open final.
Jenson Brooksby will make his debut in the ATP top 250 on Monday, having scored by far the biggest result of his life. Coincidentally, he’ll also be situated just two positions behind Gabashvili. Neither of them will be competing on the Challenger Tour next week.
20-year old Sebastian Baez, the runner-up at 2018 Roland Garros boys’ singles event, made it all the way to his first Challenger final in stunning fashion. The Argentinian eliminated players seeded 5th (Daniel Elahi Galan), 4th (Hugo Dellien), and 2nd (Andrey Martin), without losing a single set. Having only made a single quarterfinal at this level in 2020 (Guayaquil), Baez made by far the best result of his professional career.
One of the biggest revelations of the 2020 ATP Challenger Tour was Francisco Cerundolo, who managed to capture a total of three titles after the restart. The Argentinian contracted COVID-19 at the qualifying event for the Australian Open, which forced him to withdraw before his second-round match. He came back to competition in Concepcion, but was looking far off his best in the first two rounds. Nicolas Jarry had him on the ropes but missed two match points on serve (one via double fault). Cerundolo raised his level as the week progressed and made the final with classy wins over Thiago Seyboth Wild and Alejandro Tabilo.
The first set of the final saw both players engage in a baseline slugfest, struggling to hold their serves. Cerundolo’s high number of unforced errors allowed Baez to grab a lead with his extremely solid rallying skills. The opener featured seven service breaks and only the youngster managed to hold his serve twice.
In the third game of the second set, a number of protesters rushed onto the court. Apparently, their agenda was to object to plans of destroying a local football field and building an apartment building instead.
A large group of protesters just stormed the court during the final of the Challenger in Concepcion 😳
— Alex | Tennis 🎾 (@Alex_Boroch) February 21, 2021
The interruption was dealt with rather quickly and after about ten minutes, the players were able to return to the court. Cerundolo’s game really stabilized in the second set as his forehand became the dominant force that saw him conquer South American Challengers in 2020. Cerundolo managed to grab a set point at 5-4 up, the first one Baez had to save all week. But to the 20-year-old’s credit, he really wasn’t afraid to go for his shots and pushed Cerundolo off the baseline with some fine, deep groundstrokes. The set went to a tie-break, where the more experienced of the Argentinians used his significantly bigger arsenal of weapons to grab a lead and level the match.
Cerundolo’s forehand grew more and more dangerous but Baez refused to capitulate, staying sharp mentally and saving 15 of 19 break points in the entire match. The older of the Argentinians finally broke at 4-4 (after a series of 21 consecutive holds) but couldn’t serve it out, coming up with a few straightforward errors. The match went to a deciding tie-break. It was a brutal way of deciding who would come out on top of such a tennis battle but the errors outweighed the upside of Cerundolo in the most important moments of the match. Lackluster in the previous tie-breaker, Baez really stood up to the challenge this time and grabbed the biggest win of his professional career.
Before this week, the 20-year-old has just one top 200 win (Montevideo Challenger 2019 over Juan Pablo Varillas). He added four in Concepcion and secured a career-high ranking just behind the ATP top 250. Baez received a wildcard to the qualifying event in Buenos Aires in two weeks’ time. Cerundolo will feature in the main draw at a tour-level event in Cordoba next week (also via wildcard).
Challenger Tour magic:
Sebastian Baez goes around the net post:
— Damian Kust (@LWOSdamiankust) February 18, 2021
Rally of the week is an understatement here:
Puntazo! 🤯 Point of the week in Concepcion.
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) February 20, 2021
Events held next week:
- Nur-Sultan Challenger (Challenger 100, indoor)
- Gran Canaria Challenger (Challenger 80, clay)
Top 100 players in action:
- Mikhail Kukushkin (Nur-Sultan)
First-round matches to watch:
- (1) Mikhail Kukushkin vs Mackenzie McDonald
- (3) Cedrik-Marcel Stebe vs Kacper Zuk
- Tomas Machac vs (2) Evgeny Donskoy
- (5) Danilo Petrovic vs Kimmer Coppejans
- Nicola Kuhn vs Riccardo Bonadio