ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Mackenzie McDonald Backs Up His Australian Open Performance

Mackenzie McDonald in action on the ATP Challenger Tour.
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The ATP Challenger Tour visited Nur-Sultan and Gran Canaria this week. The two venues will also hold second events next week with an additional Challenger 50 tournament at Saint Petersburg. Read back on the action on the Canary Islands and in the capital of Kazakhstan.

ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Nur-Sultan

Mackenzie McDonald recently made the fourth round at the Australian Open, scoring wins over such established players as Lloyd Harris or Borna Coric. The American had a brilliant college career at UCLA before going to reach a career-high ranking of world #57. A hamstring injury and long recovery saw him drop out of the top 250 about a year ago, but McDonald is finally back on the right trail.

In the first round, he had to take on top-seeded Mikhail Kukushkin, the only top 100 player in the draw.  The American smoothly transferred his game from hard courts Down Under to the indoor courts at Nur-Sultan and only struggled against Frederico Ferreira Silva in the quarterfinals. That match went the distance and finished in a third-set tiebreak but McDonald showed little signs of fatigue just a day later, steamrolling Henri Laaksonen to make the final.

His opponent in the final, Jurij Rodionov, had a terrible start to the year, one very different to 2020 when he clinched two Challenger titles in February and looked like a lock to due damage on the main tour later in the season. That only happened to an extent (a win over Denis Shapovalov at Vienna) and Rodionov won just one match in his first four events of 2021. Getting straightforward wins over Ivan Nedelko and Tatsuma Ito, the Austrian managed to find his best tennis to defeat the in-form Tomas Machac. Just like McDonald, he only lost a single set on the way to the finals (to Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the semifinals).

McDonald started fast out of the gate, getting on top of the early rallies with big forehands followed by net approaches. Breaking up the baseline rhythm didn’t allow Rodionov to find his groove and even after a lengthy first game where McDonald saved four breakpoints, the first set was over in just over half an hour.

Rodionov took a short toilet break but even that didn’t hamper McDonald in any way on Sunday. The American took just over 56 minutes to clinch his third Challenger title (Fairfield 2017, Seoul 2018) in a nearly flawless display. Both finalists will be staying in Nur-Sultan for one more week. In the ATP Rankings, the Austrian will break the top 140 on Monday for the very first time, while McDonald is making big strides towards coming back to the top echelon of the game, finding himself on the 118th spot.

Gran Canaria

Looking at the draw, it seemed like a big run from Lorenzo Musetti was on the cards. The youngster was struggling from the opening match though and wasn’t 100% physically in a two tiebreaks loss to Alex Molcan. The Slovakian qualifier made it all the way to the semifinals but was taken out by Steven Diez.

It was a rather topsy-turvy event for the Canadian, starting from hard-fought battles against Emilio Nava and Alessandro Giannessi. In the latter, Diez saved a total of eight set points to secure a win via two tiebreak sets. His performance under pressure also fluctuated as the Canadian almost threw away a 5-1 lead in the decider against Molcan.

It wasn’t easy to top but Enzo Couacaud had an even rougher path to Sunday’s championship match.  The first slice of luck saw Carlos Taberner roll his ankle against him in the opening round as the Spaniard led 3-2 with a break in the deciding set. Taberner wasn’t able to continue and allowed the Frenchman a pass to the second round.

Couacaud made great use of it with a demolition win over Tommy Robredo but once again found himself in trouble in the quarterfinals. Marco Trungelliti held two match points but barely missed a pass down-the-line and Couacaud once again escaped the guillotine.

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Diez’s forehand emerged as the key shot of the early exchanges as Couacaud wasn’t able to match either defensively or offensively. As the Frenchman settled down a bit though, the match turned into a grueling, even battle. Diez had physio treatment at 6-5 up and soon enough went on to hold four set points on return. Couacaud hit his spots on serve really well though and the Canadian was far too passive on most of them, hoping that the opponent will make a simple mistake.

That didn’t happen and Couacaud took advantage, grabbing the first set in the tiebreak. On the setpoint, Diez couldn’t hit through his stellar defense and made a lousy dropshot attempt that was easily punished by the Frenchman.

The dynamics of the tiebreak continued onto the second set. Couacaud clearly got more comfortable, punishing his opponent with a couple of really good backhands down the line whenever Diez tried to play too many forehands from his backhand side. His defense also got much tougher to hit through and efficient serving brought a number of free points. Totaling 12 aces, the Frenchman looked firmly in control as he got to two match points on serve at 5-3. Diez produced an impressive fightback, playing some of his best points of the match to level.

The Frenchman wasn’t rattled though and dug deep to secure another tiebreak and clinch the title 7-6 7-6 in over two-and-a-half hours. With this win, Couacaud will be back in the top 200 of the ATP Rankings on Monday. This is a 2nd Challenger title for the Frenchman (Cassis 2018). He was also supposed to contest the championship match at Bergamo last year, which was called off because of the outbreak of the pandemic. Both Couacaud and Diez are also signed up for the second event in Gran Canaria.

Events held next week:

  • Nur-Sultan Challenger II (Challenger 125, indoor)
  • Gran Canaria Challenger II (Challenger 80, clay)
  • Saint Petersburg Challenger (Challenger 50, indoor)

We’re finally getting a Challenger 50 event! The category was supposed to be initiated last year but the only event that took place, Potchefstroom, had to be stopped mid-way due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Therefore, provided everything goes right, the Saint Petersburg Challenger will be the first completed event of this sort. More will be planned throughout the 2021 season.

Top 100 players in action:

  • Soon-Woo Kwon, Emil Ruusuvuori, Mikhail Kukushkin, James Duckworth (all Nur-Sultan)

First-round matches to watch:

Nur-Sultan

  • (1) Soon-Woo Kwon vs Blaz Rola
  • Tomas Machac vs (7) Henri Laaksonen
  • Frederico Ferreira Silva vs (3) Mikhail Kukushkin
  • Jurij Rodionov vs (8) Prajnesh Gunneswaran
  • (5) Taro Daniel vs Maximilian Marterer
  • Viktor Troicki vs (2) Emil Ruusuvuori

Lots of seeds could be in trouble here, including a rematch for last week’s semifinals between Rodionov and Gunneswaran.

Gran Canaria

  • Nicola Kuhn vs Steven Diez
  • (3) Nikola Milojevic vs Tommy Robredo
  • Constant Lestienne vs (WC) Carlos Gimeno Valero

St. Petersburg

  • Jesper De Jong vs Uladzimir Ignatik
  • (7) Roberto Quiroz vs Duck-Hee Lee

Duck-Hee Lee will be playing his first event of any level in over a year.

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