ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Brooksby and Zuk Make Top 200 Debuts

Kacper Zuk, last week a champion on the ATP Challenger Tour.

Another exciting week of action on the ATP Challenger Tour has come to an end, with two newly crowned champions making their debuts in the top 200, whilst in Saturday saw a high-profile final in Belgrade. Here’s a look back at what you might have missed:

ATP Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Belgrade

Having disappointed in Santiago and Marbella earlier this season, Roberto Carballes Baena probably didn’t feel too comfortable coming into the Belgrade Challenger. As the top seed, he drew this year’s Istanbul champion Arthur Rinderknech, a riddle that is significantly easier to solve on clay though still not an easy opener.

But the Spaniard was able to prevail, winning 6-4 7-6, and he proceeded to make his way through a draw that also featured last week’s Split champion Blaz and two-time runner-up this year, Liam Broady. The Briton was the only man to take Carballes Baena to a deciding set all week and really forced him to come out of the comfort zone and look for opportunities to be more aggressive. But Carballes Baena’s clay-court nous ultimately gave him a decisive advantage.

Just like Carballes Baena, Damir Dzumhur arrived in Belgrade without having put together a deep run this season. The Bosnian dropped the opening set to Pedja Krstin in his opener, but was able to prevail in three to stay alive in the tournament. His draw proved to be no bed of roses, but Dzumhur seemed to be improving with each match and he was able to eliminate some dangerous clay-courters, including Jozef Kovalik and Taro Daniel, whilst he also took out veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, who was playing his first event this season.

Both finalists excel from baseline exchanges and, unsurprisingly, a lot of the rallies were gruelling battles. Carballes Baena’s biggest issue is usually his inability to take the racket out of his opponents’ hands but against a player like Dzumhur, the Spaniard was able to play more pro-actively. On top of that, Carballes Baena managed to stay much sharper in all the key moments. Dzumhur had a set point in the second set, but netted a backhand as the first shot after the serve.

He did not win another a game, falling to a 4-6 5-7 as Carballes Baena improved his career-record in ATP Challenger Tour finals to 8-3. His title in Belgrade was his first at this level since winning in Lisbon back in 2019 and, after just a week outside the top 100, he once again finds himself with a double-digit ranking. The Spaniard will now look to make an impact at the ATP Serbia Open after coming through the qualifying in Belgrade, beating Dzumhur again in the process.
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Orlando

Joining Jaume Munar, Jenson Brooksby is the second player this year to reach three consecutive finals on the Challenger circuit (won in Potchefstroom, runner-up in Cleveland). After not playing a single match in 2020 due to injuries, Brooksby decided to drop out of college tennis and go professional, with that brave decision looking to have paid off at the moment. Brooksby didn’t drop a set on the way to the championship match, beating Christian Harrison in the semifinal.

Having started the year ranked 793rd in the world, Harrison has now secured a return to the top 300 of the ATP rankings despite competing in just four events. Brooksby also fended off a serious challenge from the rising star Zane Khan. The 19-year-old recently made three straight ITF finals in India and showed enough in Orlando to suggest that he can make the step up to the ATP Challenger Tour regularly.

One player who definitely wasn’t enjoying 2021 was Denis Kudla, who came into the week with a 5-6 win/loss record this season (1-3 in Challengers). But sometimes it only takes a couple of good performances to get things going and that proved to be the case for the American. The turning point was his second-round encounter with Tim van Rijthoven.

Kudla found himself down 2-4 in the deciding set and staring another disappointing defeat in the face, but managed to steal two breaks from his big-serving opponent. He certainly looked to be playing with renewed confidence thereafter, with his performance in his quarterfinal victory against Michael Mmoh of the highest quality. He did turn in a poor opening set against Roberto Cid Subervi in the semifinals, but that aside, Kudla really found the right rhythm in Orlando.

In the final, however, Brooksby’s rally tolerance shone from the start, with Kudla unable to maintain the level of aggression that he wanted to. The youngster can also efficiently turn defense into offense and didn’t struggle much with Kudla’s weight of shot. Brooksby’s serve can be a liability but his opponent wasn’t able to use that against him, too often allowing the 21-year-old to be aggressive with his plus one shot.

Perhaps afraid of going for his own shots, Kudla allowed Brooksby too much freedom and looked short of ideas as the young gun claimed his second Challenger title with a 6-3 6-3 win. Having started the season ranked world #310, Brooksby has now broken into the top 200 for the first time. Both men will next be in action at the Tallahassee Challenger. Kudla, seeded second, will open his campaign against a qualifier, whilst Brooksby is set to square off against up-and-coming junior Martin Damm.
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Split

Who’s been the most consistent player on the ATP Challenger Tour this year? Jaume Munar, Sebastian Baez, Benjamin Bonzi and Jenson Brooksby all come to mind. But no one besides Kacper Zuk has played six events and made to at least the quarterfinals every time. That is particularly impressive when it is remembered that he twice had to come through the qualifying draws.

That includes the second event in Split, but the Pole was close to unstoppable on his way to the final, sending home accomplished players such as Aleksandar Vukic and Tristan Lamasine. In the semifinals, he served for the opening set against Elias Ymer, but underperformed in the key moments. Having struggled in the latter stages at Challengers more than once, there were understandably fears that it was to be another disappointing day for Zuk.

But he was able to muster an impressive turnaround, storming through the second and third sets for the loss of only one game to complete a 6-7 6-0 6-1 win and secure his place in his second final at this level in 2021 (St Petersburg 2).

His opponent there, Matthias Bourgue, had to work rather harder to make it to the championship match. The Frenchman was down 2-4 in the third against Mirza Basic in the quarterfinals, having also been taken the distance by Mohamed Safwat in the first round. But he dug out a victory over the Bosnian to set up an all-French semifinal against Quentin Halys. After a tight opening set went to a tiebreak, another marathon looked to be in the offing.

But Halys could not take his chances, throwing away four set points in the tiebreak, with injury then forcing him to retire to send Bourgue into final. There, despite losing his first service game, Bourgue kept up with Zuk quite well in the early stages and levelled the first set at 4-4. Both players were looking to take over the initiative but the Pole handled being on the back foot effectively, especially by punishing Bourgue with his open-stance backhand.

In the end, just like in every other match he played during the week, Zuk was able to play with the right mindset and trust his game even when something didn’t quite work out. He broke Bourgue again at the death in the first set and did not face a breakpoint in wrapping up the second set to swiftly secure his first Challenger Tour title with a 6-4 6-2 win.

Zuk jumped 40 spots in the ATP Rankings as a reward for his efforts, breaking through to the top 200 for the very first time. He will no longer need to qualify for almost any Challenger event and has already secured a spot in Roland Garros qualifying, which will give him the chance to make his first Grand Slam appearance. The Split champion will take a break next week, while Bourgue has received  a special exempt in Rome and takes on Sergiy Stakhovsky in the opening round.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Garden Open (Rome, Challenger 80, clay)
  • Tallahassee Tennis Challenger (Challenger 80, green clay)
  • Salinas Open (Challenger 80, hard)

There will be no top 100 players in action this week.

First-round matches to watch:

Rome

  • (3) Paolo Lorenzi vs Yannick Maden
  • (PR) Thanasi Kokkinakis vs Jay Clarke
  • Bernard Tomic vs Ruben Bemelmans

Tallahassee

  • (WC) Ryan Harrison vs Matthew Ebden
  • (5) Ivo Karlovic vs Bjorn Fratangelo
  • Brayden Schnur vs (6) Juan Manuel Cerundolo

Salinas

  • (1) Yasutaka Uchiyama vs Tim van Rijthoven
  • Nicolas Alvarez vs (WC) Nicolas Jarry

Main photo:
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