Although there was little by way of a change of scenery on the ATP Challenger Tour, with Gran Canaria and Nur-Sultan again hosting the tour, there were two new champions. The Challenger 50 that took place in Saint Petersburg also marked the start of a new series of tournaments for players ranked below 151st in the world. Here’s a look back at what you might have missed.
ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap
All eyes were supposed to be on top seed Carlos Alcaraz, coming back to clay after his successful start to the season which included qualifying for the Australian Open and a win over David Goffin at the Great Ocean Road Open in Melbourne. But after starting his campaign in Gran Canaria by edging out fellow teenager Filip Cristian Jianu, Alcaraz went out to Marco Trungelliti in straight-sets. In his absence, it was Kimmer Coppejans who took advantage.
The Belgian beat last week’s runner-up Steven Diez before beating the aforementioned Trungelliti, both in lengthy three-setters that featured a number of shifts in the momentum. Then, in the semifinals, he stopped the qualifier Eduardo Esteve Lobato’s dream run. The 26-year-old had arrived in Gran Canaria with only one win in Challenger main draws to his name, but played some fine clay-court tennis, with his forehand particularly impressive, as he claimed a first top 200 win at Nikola Milojevic’s expense.
In an even, competitive field, Carlos Gimeno Valero was taken the distance in all but one of his matches en route to the final. Gimeno Valero, who was runner-up in the boy’s singles at Wimbledon in 2019, emerged as a force on the Challenger Tour last year, with deep runs in Marbella and Barcelona. The 19-year-old had not yet replicated those heights this season, but he got on a roll in Gran Canaria, playing some excellent tennis.
Despite having to complete his quarterfinal against Alessandro Giannessi and then play his semifinal against Blaz Kavcic on the same day, Gimeno Valero managed to overcome these obstacles and make it to his maiden Challenger Tour final. Kavcic actually held a match point against him, but the Slovenian stayed back and allowed his opponent to seize total control of the rally with his forehand. That proved to be a costly mistake, with Gimeno Valero going on to complete a 3-6 6-1 7-5 win.
In the final, Gimeno Valero delivered what was definitely his most comprehensive display of the week. The Spaniard adopted a more aggressive approach, dominating rallies with his forehand and easily hitting through Coppejans’ defences. Perhaps the best assessment of his performance was given by his opponent, who was heard to say ‘it’s incredible, I can’t do anything’. To make matters worse for the Belgian, Gimeno Valero saved all eight break points faced on his way to a 6-4 6-2 victory.
His maiden title secures him a top 300 debut. Both he and Coppejans are signed up for a Challenger in Santiago in two-weeks time. The Belgian will make the main draw, while pending withdrawals or a wildcard Gimeno Valero might have to start in the qualifying. But if can maintain the level he showed in Gran Canaria, do not expect that to remain the case for long.
20-year-old Tomas Machac, who recently qualified for the Australian Open, was in stunning form all week. With the exception of a sudden dip in the second set of his semifinal clash with Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Machac didn’t really give anyone a shot, despite coming up against some formidable opponents. The Czech took out Henri Laaksonen, last week’s champion Mackenzie McDonald and top-seeded Soon-Woo-Kwon. Against the latter pair, he lost just eight games combined.
Sebastian Ofner, in contrast to Machac, had been in miserable form in the early weeks of 2021, with the Austrian managing just one win in his first five events and playing some dreadful tennis in those losses. But, as is fairly often the case, he only needed a couple of good performances to settle into a more productive rhythm. After beating Evgeny Donskoy and Timofey Skatov to reach the last eight, Ofner looked a different player.
The quarterfinals saw him take on Frederico Ferreira Silva, who beat him in straight-sets in the first round in Nur-Sultan last week, but Ofner had his revenge with a 7-5 win in the third set. That appeared to have given him a real confidence boost and Ofner played his best match of the year so far to come out on top against Taro Daniel of Japan in the semifinals.
Machac’s hyper-aggressive approach, which had served him so well in the early rounds, did not pay off in the first set of the final, with the Czech struggling to time his backhand. Ofner was not slow to realise this, engaging Machac in long backhand exchanges and giving the Czech different looks by using his slice. But the young gun grew more comfortable as the match progressed and, crucially, stopped rushing his groundstrokes.
He was able to regain control of the final as a result, emerging a 4-6 6-4 6-4 winner. His reward for claiming his second ATP Challenger Tour title (Koblenz 2020) is a debut in the top 140 of the ATP Rankings. Both finalists will take the week off now before returning to action at the fourth event of the season in Biella.
When he beat Albert Ramos Vinolas before giving Karen Khachanov a scare in Antwerp last season, it looked like the 20-year-old Zizou Bergs’ was set for a major breakthrough. But the Belgian posted some poor results on the ITF circuit in the last weeks of the year, capturing a 15K title in Bratislava but making a number of surprisingly early exits.
But he came good in Saint Petersburg, qualifying and then winning four main draw matches in a row, all without dropping a set. The only player who even came close to stealing a set from him was Vit Kopriva, who served for the first set in their semifinal. But Bergs broke back and never let Kopriva back into the contest, eventually claiming a 7-6 6-2 win.
His opponent in the final, Altug Celikbilek, has scored two tour-level wins already this year, beating Kacper Zuk and Shintaro Mochizuki in Singapore, but the Turk had enjoyed relatively little success on the Challenger circuit. Indeed, he had not gone beyond the quarterfinals before arriving in Saint Petersburg.
But just like Bergs, the first-ever completed Challenger 50 event allowed him that opportunity with Celikbilek only lost a single set on the way to the final. He finally broke the quarterfinal curse with a win over Jesper de Jong, before beating the qualifier Artem Dubrivnyy in the last four, who had scored surely the biggest upset of the week by beating former-world #45 Andrey Kuznetsov in the previous round.
In the final, Bergs quickly raced out to a 4-1 lead in the final, but once Celikbilek found his feet, things got a lot more complicated for the Belgian. Celikbilek’s explosive forehand made it very hard for his opponent to win points off the backfoot, with the match turning into a real battle for baseline dominance. Bergs managed to hold on to his lead in the first set, but the Turk sent the match into a decider by winning the second 6-4.
There, in the fast indoor conditions, every game assumed the utmost importance. But Celikbilek struggled to convert his chances, failing to take advantage of some straightforward errors made by Bergs at 2-2, although the Belgian does also deserve credit for some clutch serving. In the end, the Turk’s missed opportunities took their toll. Leading 5-4, Bergs swung freely and rushed the net. That aggressive approach was enough to see him secure the break and the match.
Despite the lower ranking points and prize money compared with other Challenger events, both finalists still managed to make new career-high rankings. It will be an especially big jump for Bergs, who finds himself in the 330th spot. Both Bergs and Celikbilek will stay for the second event in Saint Petersburg. The Turk got a direct acceptance to the main draw, while Bergs was awarded a special exempt from qualifying as the champion.
Challenger Tour magic:
If you think the smash defense is the hot shot here, just wait until the end of the point:
UNREAL point from Igor Sijsling 🤯🔥
— Alex | Tennis 🎾 (@Alex_Boroch) March 2, 2021
A classic doubles match:
So Polansky/Schnur retired after warming-up and one underarm serve. I'have seen many weird tennis things, but this is top notch. pic.twitter.com/p1hCq40Zz4
— Beta (@sPETEcore) March 5, 2021
It's a dog's life in Nur-Sultan 🐶
This week, players competing in Nur-Sultan took part in a photo shoot with homeless pets, to support local NGOs in the protection of homeless animals. Thanks to this campaign, three dogs were adopted from the shelter the following day. 😊❤️ pic.twitter.com/hQdw3gsE7u
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) March 3, 2021
There was an abundance of tweeners this week:
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) March 1, 2021
Just your casual tweener volley. 😏
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) March 2, 2021
Events held next week:
- Biella Challenger Indoor III (Challenger 80)
- Saint Petersburg Challenger II (Challenger 80)
There will be no top 100 players in action next week, although some players (James Duckworth, Andreas Seppi, Yuichi Sugita, Yasutaka Uchiyama) that are situated just outside that threshold will be competing in Biella.
First-round matches to watch:
- (3) Yuichi Sugita vs (WC) Luca Nardi
- Aleksandar Vukic vs (6) Jurij Rodionov
- (PR) Dustin Brown vs Quentin Halys
- Sergiy Stakhovsky vs (2) Andreas Seppi
- Vit Kopriva vs (WC) Evgenii Tiurnev
- Altug Celikbilek vs (8) Teymuraz Gabashvili
- (4) Marius Copil vs (ALT) Michael Vrbensky
- Jack Sock vs (3) Cem Ilkel
Embed from Getty Images