The European clay-court season is now firmly underway on the ATP Challenger Tour. Last week saw a Challenger 80 event contested in Marbella (preceding the tour-level event at the same venue) and a Challenger 50 in Oeiras. As always, there was some excellent tennis and a number of thrilling matches. Here is a recap of what you might have missed.
ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap
The draw opened up quickly as the top seeds, Roberto Carballes Baena and Norbert Gombos, both fell in the opening round. So did Leo Borg, son of the 11-time Grand Slam champion, who is yet to win a match in three Challenger Tour appearances. 2020 Rio Open runner-up, Gianluca Mager, won just one match in the whole Golden Swing this year and failed to impress as the top seed at Zadar Challenger.
The Italian only needed a couple of victories to get on a roll though and performed at the highest level he has shown so far this season. Mager did drop a set in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, facing tough challenges from his countrymen Alessandro Gianessi and Roberto Marcora, but hung tough to advance a winner in three on both occasions.
Jaume Munar came to Marbella, having reached the final at both Challenger Tour events he played this year. The Spaniard almost completed a double in Antalya, winning against Lorenzo Musetti before finishing runner-up to Carlos Taberner. These runs were supposed to set him up for a great Golden Swing but Munar slightly underperformed, reaching a quarterfinal at Buenos Aires but falling in the opening round of two other events.
The Spaniard’s clay-court talent is undeniable though – he took eventual semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas to five sets at last year’s Roland Garros – and back on the Challenger circuit in Europe, Munar once again looked assured. His path through the draw wasn’t always comfortable with Taro Daniel and Mario Vilella Martinez really making him work for his wins, but the Spaniard managed to maintain his perfect record of reaching the finals on this year’s ATP Challenger Tour.
Munar’s amazing 13-1 record on the ATP Challenger Tour this year looked unthreatened in the opening set as his fantastic defensive skills allowed him to take it six games to two. But the Spaniard’s limitations were clearly on display in the rest of the match. Against a red-lining opponent, who blasted forehand winners with ease, Munar just couldn’t do much to enforce his own terms. Mager regained control of the match and played with extreme aggression behind his own serve. The 26-year-old never looked back and took the match 2-6 6-3 6-2.
A fourth ATP Challenger Tour title for Mager (Koblenz, Barletta, Biella 2019) sees him return to the top 100 after falling out of that elite number at the beginning of March. Both finalists will next play the main-tour event in Marbella. Mager is set to start his campaign against Mikhail Kukushkin, whilst Munar takes on a qualifier in the first round.
The second-highest ranked Portuguese ever, Gastao Elias, peaked at world #57 but hasn’t performed at his top level in a while after a couple of terrible seasons. Despite going under the radar, Elias played very solid tennis in summer exhibitions in 2020 and was a bit unlucky with his draws at Challenger level. He added a couple more ITF World Tennis Tour titles to his resume though and received a wildcard to the event in Oeiras.
Down 1-4 in the decider to Tseng Chun-Hsin in the first round, the Portuguese dug deep and proved he shouldn’t be written off just yet. Advancing to the finals with a great win over Evan Furness, Elias made his first Challenger Tour championship match since October 2017 at Campinas.
Standing in front of him would be Zdenek Kolar, who had been struggling to win matches on the circuit this year (just four victories in eight events before this week). Just like Elias, his toughest challenge on the way to the final came in the opening round as he faced Mississippi State alumni Nuno Borges. The college standout completely dominated the first set and held a match point on Kolar’s serve at 6-5 in the second. Borges’ return did not find the court though and the 24-year-old Czech was able to shift the momentum in his favor. In his next three matches, Kolar didn’t lose more than three games in a single set, reaching his second Challenger Tour final (Ostrava 2016).
With undeniably explosive energy on the court, Kolar was quick out of the blocks. The Czech is great at taking the ball on the rise and bullied Elias with his forehand in the opening exchanges. He didn’t allow the Portuguese to utilize his assets and kept pushing him behind. Elias had a lot more to say in the second set though, going up a break once including an opportunity to serve for the match. Kolar was much better in the key moments on Sunday though, reeling off the next three games to pick up his first Challenger trophy.
The Czech is now only about 50 points away from the top 200 of the ATP Rankings, a ranking ceiling he is yet to break through. He will next travel to Split, where he received a special exempt to the main draw and opens his campaign against a qualifier. Elias, meanwhile, will stay in Oeiras, taking on this week’s quarterfinalist Marco Trungelliti in a blockbuster first-round draw.
Challenger Tour magic:
Best shots of March compilation:
They were the 🔥🔥 moments of the month.
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) April 3, 2021
Klizan hitting a practice wall mid-match, a bit too late for that to help:
Even hitting the practice wall couldn't help Klizan find his rhythm today. The first two rounds were pretty great but as we know by now, it doesn't take much for him to turn off mentally.
0-6 3-6 to Gianessi in 57 minutes, won 9 pts in the opener
📷: https://t.co/rIQPjfrGkd pic.twitter.com/CLBjbBwFRW
— Damian Kust (@LWOSdamiankust) April 2, 2021
Racket breaking can be an art:
— ATP Challenger Tour (@ATPChallenger) April 3, 2021
Events held next week:
- Split Open (Challenger 80, clay)
- Open de Oeiras II (Challenger 50, clay)
There will be no top 100 players in action.
First-round matches to watch:
- (1) Pedro Sousa vs (ALT) Kacper Zuk
- (PR) Thanasi Kokkinakis vs (8) Filip Horansky
- (WC) Duje Ajdukovic vs (PR) Dustin Brown
- (6) Marco Trungelliti vs (SE) Gastao Elias
- (WC) Nuno Borges vs (2) Enzo Couacaud
Embed from Getty Images