Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Next-Gen is Coming as Stricker and Bergs Claim Titles

Zizou Bergs Antwerp

We had another two up-and-coming winners on the Challenger circuit this week. 2020 Roland Garros juniors champion Dominic Stephan Stricker and 20-year-old Zizou Bergs carry a lot of similarities – all-round, pleasing to watch games with very little hesitation. They were joined in the winners’ circuit by Nikola Milojevic, one of the most solid Challenger competitors of the past three years or so. Read back on this week’s action.

Lille

Recent Challenger Tour titlists Arthur Rinderknech and Benjamin Bonzi were listed among the favorites to triumph again but they were both eliminated by fellow Frenchmen on the quarterfinal stage. A champion in both the previous editions of the Lille Challenger, Gregoire Barrere was just as hard to stop this week. The Frenchman had to win three deciding sets on the way to the final, including a deciding tie-break against Czech youngster Jonas Forejtek. The toughest challenge came in the semifinals as Maxime Janvier held a 6-4 5-2 lead over him but lost the next five games, taking just five points. Barrere was the top seed for the event, which further illustrates his journey as a tennis player from winning this event as a qualifier back in 2018.

Zizou Bergs announced himself to the tennis world with a brilliant win over Albert Ramos-Vinolas at Antwerp last year and while it took some time, the 20-year-old is now firmly among Challenger Tour title contenders. After winning a title of the lowest Challenger category (50) at Saint Petersburg, Bergs came to Lille to prove himself he can also do well on bigger stages. Needless to say, he did just that. Starting from the qualifying draw, the Belgian was able to upset such established competitors like Maximilian Marterer or Quentin Halys. His forehand really shined throughout the week, allowing him to maintain rally pressure and build points on his own terms.

That same shot was pivotal in how the final played out. Bergs either lived or died by the sword as Barrere remained solid and looked for counters from his better backhand wing. The Belgian was really inconsistent, trying to be both powerful and accurate. When it worked, it left Barrere without an option to respond. But in the tenth game of the first set, a sloppy game from Bergs allowed the Frenchman to take advantage and win the opener.

The 20-year-old wasn’t rattled by that though and caught fire, leveling the match with an extremely quick 6-1 set. The match was really on his racket but the inconsistency led to a lot of different rally outcomes and momentum changes. Bergs first lost serve to start the deciding set, only to win the next four games on the spin. For a match played indoors, the serves meant relatively little as the servers won only 17 out of 29 games. It just had to end in a tie-break but before Barrere could even get to that, he had to save two match points. One was a straightforward serve plus forehand combination but the second one really proved his class as it took a 24-shot rally to finally force an error from Bergs with a brilliant shot up the line.

Both players really peaked for the upcoming deciding tie-break and found it in themselves to up their level. Once again, Bergs was the more aggressive, braver player in key moments and that finally paid off. The Belgian won the tie-break 7-5 to put an end to Barrere’s streak of 17 matches won in a row at Lille Challenger. Having started the year outside the top 400, the 20-year-old will find himself at a new career-high of World No. 262 on Monday.

Lugano

Swiss tennis fans might have been wondering what would be left of their country’s brilliant tennis achievements with Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in the twilight of their careers. But it looks like the legacy is in safe hands with at least three extremely promising teenagers. Jerome Kym played a very decent match against Roman Safiullin, while 2020 Roland Garros juniors runner-up, Leandro Riedi, even won a round and made top seed Yuichi Sugita work really hard for the win.

The brightest one of them all is definitely Dominic Stephan Stricker, who managed to beat Riedi in that aforementioned Roland Garros final. Having made his debut at Challenger level in Saint Petersburg this year, Stricker seemed to be the most dangerous one of the three young Swiss. That proved perfectly right in Lugano, as the 18-year-old went all the way to the finals, taking out Sugita or last week’s Biella champion, Daniel Masur. Stricker possesses a really brilliant serve for his age and he was able to post such impressive stats as 21 aces against Sugita or 13 in his second-round victory over Tim van Rijthoven.  The Swiss had to save two match points to beat the latter but played admirably under pressure, firing a forehand return winner on the line and a really deep approach shot at his opponent’s feet.

His championship match opponent was Vitalyi Sachko, who looked set to rise up the rankings after a fantastic run at Vienna last year, defeating Pierre-Hugues Herbert and giving Dominic Thiem a run for his money. Despite a few good Challenger runs in South America and a second professional title of his career at a 15K at Bratislava, Sachko went a bit under the radar before coming to Lugano. After making it through the qualifying draw, the Ukrainian looked down and out to Marc Polmans in the first round, before finding his timing and coming back to win the match in three sets. That turned out to be a turning point for the 23-year-old, who made his maiden Challenger Tour final with straight-set wins over such dangerous indoor competitors as Sergiy Stakhovsky, Roman Safiullin, or Saint Petersburg runner-up Altug Celikbilek.

The youngster, who recently practiced with Roger Federer before the Swiss legend came back from his injury layoff, was absolutely untouchable on serve in the final. Winning 36/44 of his service points (including five double faults), Stricker was able to put a lot of pressure on Sachko and also playing his maiden Challenger Tour final, the Ukrainian didn’t seem to deal with it all that well. In a final that lasted just about 70 minutes, Stricker got the 6-4 6-2 win in really comfortable fashion. As a result, the 18-year-old made a jump of over 450 ranking places and could be expecting other tournament organizers to recognize him in wildcard discussions very soon. Sachko also made a new career-high ranking of World No. 321.

Zadar

Top-seeds Gianluca Mager and Sumit Nagal seemed like firm favorites coming into Zadar but they were both eliminated in the quarterfinals, in fact within about ten minutes. Mager had been struggling throughout the week, pulling out comeback wins like from 1-6 0-3 down to Nikolas Sanchez Izquierdo. The Italian engaged in another deciding set thriller against Lukas Klein but ultimately fell, capping off what was a very uneven week. Sumit Nagal advanced to the quarterfinals pretty much unharmed but run into qualifier Nerman Fatic, who had a really inspired run. The Bosnian played for over 3 hours against Alessandro Gianessi just two days before that and despite cramping in both matches, he managed to eliminate Nagal in another tight contest.

Neither Fatic nor Klein made it to the semifinals though. The Bosnian qualifier had to retire after just ten games to Dimitar Kuzmanov, who had been showing signs of improvement pretty much since the tour restarted after the pandemic. The Bulgarian reached two quarterfinals in Potchefstroom this year but only once before (Buenos Aires 2018) did he manage to enter the final four at a Challenger. The week in Zadar was by far the most successful one of his career as Kuzmanov took out players like Gian Marco Moroni or Blaz Kavcic to get a spot in his maiden final on the circuit without losing a single set. With this run, he set up a championship match meeting against the Nikola Milojevic, who’s been among the best clay-courters on the circuit in the past few seasons. Milojevic only dropped a single set on the way, coming out on top against the aforementioned Klein.

The final was a grueling three-hour-long battle, although at first, it didn’t really seem that way. Kuzmanov gave an absolutely perfect display in the opening set, going from defense to offense with his forehand on the run and hitting many wonderful backhand winners. Milojevic took a lengthy bathroom break after losing the opener 2-6 and that seemed to have taken the momentum out of Kuzmanov’s hands. The Bulgarian was nowhere near his best level in the next eight games as Milojevic managed to level.

Kuzmanov took just as long in the bathroom as Milojevic did after the opener and the third set took a completely different path than the previous two. The Bulgarian raced to a 4-2 lead before performing poorly in key moments to allow his opponent a chance to serve for the match. Fittingly, such an even contest ended in a tie-break as Milojevic was always a minibreak ahead and managed to keep the ball in the court, allowing a much more nervous opponent to make the mistakes.

Milojevic claimed his third title on the Challenger circuit (Fergana 2018, Liberec 2019) and will also find himself at a new career-high ranking of World No. 131 on Monday. The Serbian is drawn to play his countryman Danilo Petrovic in the opening round at Marbella next week. Kuzmanov decided to pull out from Oeiras following his deep run here.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Andalucia Challenger (Marbella, Challenger 80, clay)
  • Open de Oeiras (Challenger 50, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Roberto Carballes Baena, Norbert Gombos, Jaume Munar (all Marbella)

First-round matches to watch:

Marbella

  • (1) Roberto Carballes Baena vs Henri Laaksonen
  • (PR) Andrey Kuznetsov vs (5) Pedro Sousa
  • (6) Taro Daniel vs (WC) Leo Borg

Oeiras

  • (1) Oscar Otte vs Marco Trungelliti
  • (WC) Nuno Borges vs (8) Zdenek Kolar

 

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