Two finals between the top two seeds were played out this week on the ATP Challenger Tour, which hadn’t happened before this season. One of them included a meeting of the two highest-ranked Dutchmen in the ATP Rankings. Who took it and how did the tournaments in Iasi, Amersfoort, Nur-Sultan, and Todi play out? Read back on this week’s action:
ATP Challenger Tour Recap
Hugo Gaston was the runner-up at the Rome Challenger earlier in the year (lost to Andrea Pellegrino), and seemingly lost his form in the weeks after. This week, the Frenchman struggled to beat Matija Pecotic in the second round, barely edging past the Croatian in a third set tiebreak. Winning despite not looking his best had been a recurring theme for the 20-year-old throughout his run in Iasi, including tight straight-set wins over Duje Ajdukovic and Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves.
After capturing his maiden Challenger title at Oeiras, Zdenek Kolar also sort of lost the plot, losing his first match in five of the next nine events he played on this circuit. The Czech enjoyed a very comfortable draw in the early rounds in Iasi though, which allowed him to slowly play himself into form. Kolar eliminated Riccardo Bonadio in the quarterfinals before dropping his only set to Milijan Zekic in the final four.
Gaston quickly raced to a 5-1 lead, but one of the main traits of this final was to be momentum swings and the first of these came in that moment. The Frenchman wasn’t even able to reach set point and Kolar won the next six games to take the opener. Gaston had no such issues in the second one and comfortably levelled the match after saving two break points in the set.
Kolar’s level rose significantly in the decider though as he was able to run down everything Gaston threw at him and come back with brilliant counters. At 4-1 30-0 up, it seemed like the Czech would easily race away to the finish. But the Frenchman had one last hurrah that saw him level the set and briefly threaten Kolar. However, the 24-year-old played another great game with Gaston serving to stay in the match and despite some hiccups (four match points), he was able to take his 2nd Challenger title this season.
This victory sees Kolar make a top 200 debut on Monday. He decided to withdraw from next week’s Tampere Challenger and will return to action in Poznan in two weeks. Gaston will now make a main tour appearance in Gstaad, where he’s drawn to play Juan Manuel Cerundolo.
Finals between the top seeds do not happen often on the Challenger circuit, but that’s what we got in Amersfoort. Tallon Griekspoor is the current Dutch #1 and he lived up to his status as the top seed, getting to the final in this event. A Challenger titlist at Prague and Bratislava earlier in the season, Griekspoor improved to a 7-0 head-to-head against Kimmer Coppejans in the quarterfinals (although he lost a set), before coming back from a set down again to take out Antoine Hoang.
Waiting for him in the final was the Dutch #2, Botic van de Zandschulp. The 25-year-old has been making big strides on the main tour this year, but his Challenger results hadn’t been spectacular up until this point. The Dutchman stormed through a tough draw, defeating in-form opponents in Jesper De Jong and Mats Moraing. In the semifinals, he had to come back from a set and a break down to Guido Andreozzi but ultimately regained control over the match.
The two had only faced each other once before when Griekspoor had to retire after losing the opening set 0-6 two years ago. Healthy this time around, he had a slight advantage due to the slower surface, which didn’t allow van de Zandschulp to impose his attacking game so easily. Griekspoor came through the first set unharmed on his serve and returned extremely well to limit his rival to 22% of points won behind the second serve.
Van de Zandschulp wasn’t done yet and in the second set he was able to play a lot more aggressively, blasting returns and finishing points at the net. The 25-year-old managed to level the match and seemed to be in cruise control as he was the first to land a break point opportunity in the decider. But just a small lapse of concentration saw the pressure on Griekspoor released. Griekspoor got comfortable, eventually racing away with the decider as quickly as he did the opening set to complete a 6-1 3-6 6-1 win.
Griekspoor won his fifth Challenger title and he’s now just about 30 points away from debuting in the top 100. It’s also the Dutchman’s third trophy of the season, which has him lead the list alongside Jenson Brooksby, Zizou Bergs, and Sebastian Baez. He will now play in the main draw of an ATP event in Gstaad, while van de Zandschulp goes to Finland to play in a Challenger in Tampere.
Home crowd favorite Federico Gaio was the top seed in the tournament and despite not reaching a single final yet this season, he was able to turn what seemed to be another early exit into his first great run of 2021. In the second-round, he was down 3-5 to former junior world #1Thiago Tirante, ultimately fighting back and taking the match in a third set tie-breaker. The semifinals saw him comfortably dispatch last week’s Perugia champion, Tomas Martin Etcheverry.
Coached by former world #28 Santiago Giraldo in this swing of tournaments, Mario Vilella Martinez made some impact at tour-level earlier in the season, but just like Gaio he only had a single semifinal to his name in 2021. The Spaniard fended off a couple of promising Italian talents (Francesco Forti and Giulio Zeppieri) to meat another youngster on the rise in the semifinals, Matthias Pucinelli de Almeida. Despite dropping a set, Vilella Martinez found a way to regain control over the decider against the 20-year-old Brazilian, who won the French Open in boys’ doubles two years ago.
Both players served impeccably in the opening set, especially Vilella Martinez, who won 23 out of 25 points on his first serve. The 26-year-old created a couple of set points on Gaio’s serve but ultimately had to win it in a tie-breaker, aided by the Italian’s very poor shot selection in the most important moments. The wide repertoire of to Gaio has can be a double-edged sword, but his ability time them well got a lot better by the second set, which allowed him to dictate.
Vilella Martinez fought back though, and he did that with intent. Gaio’s dropshots aren’t so effective when he’s not the one in an advantageous position in the rally and with his great rallying skills, the Spaniard was able to keep moving the ball (and Gaio) around the court, allowing his opponent much less freedom. That seemed to be the key to the match as he took the decider six games to three, breaking Gaio for the first time in the whole match.
This victory allows Vilella Martinez to reach a new career-high ranking of world #159. It’s the 26-year-old’s second title at this level (Prague 2019). The Spaniard took a special exempt into the main draw of the Tampere Challenger, while Gaio had to withdraw from playing the qualifying at Umag because of his deep run here.
Max Purcell has pretty much barely played this season, only deciding to come to Europe in May. The Australian lost in the qualifying draw at Parma and the Nottingham Challenger, and he almost suffered the same fate at Eastbourne. A couple of withdrawals allowed him to grab a lucky loser spot and Purcell made the best of it, reaching his maiden ATP semifinal. His run in Nur-Sultan was full of close calls too – the 23-year-old defeated Alessandro Bega 7-5 in the decider, came back from a set and a break down against Tung-Lin Wu, and ultimately had to survive Peter Polansky serving for the match twice. A final is a final though and Purcell made his first championship match at a Challenger in over two years, and his first outside South Korea.
It’s been a slightly shorter wait for Jay Clarke, who last featured on that stage in November 2019 at Pune. The Brit was in the middle of an awful season, which saw him win just 7 times in 23 attempts before this week and only reach a single Challenger quarterfinal at Biella. The 22-year-old survived a marathon against Jason Kubler in the quarterfinals and impressed with a comprehensive straight-set dismissal of Borna Gojo.
Clarke broke Purcell early and with his solid baselining skills, it seemed like he was easily controlling the match. Up until 4-4 in the second set, the Brit didn’t have to save a single break point opportunity. But cruising like that didn’t last long and Purcell found a lot better rhythm on his forehand, up to a point where it became a very dominant weapon in the rallies. He was able to force a decider, which featured twelve straight service holds. Clarke had some physical issues with his arm, which seemed to force him to take the initiative a bit more.
The Brit created a match point on return at 5-4 up, but Purcell managed to save it with a gutsy net approach. In the tie-break, it was the Australian who landed a first chance to finish the match, but couldn’t do anything as Clarke saved it with an ace. The point at 6-6 proved crucial as Purcell won an extended rally with a stunning forehand winner and made no mistake closing out the match on the second time of asking.
Clarke will stay in Nur-Sultan, where he’s due to face Andrey Kuznetsov in the opening round of the second Challenger event. Purcell decided to take a break and withdraw from that. His second Challenger title (Gimcheon 2016), along with the recent semifinal at ATP Eastbourne, allows him to break through to the top 200 for the very first time.
Challenger Tour magic:
I thought this rally deserved to be on here. They're just starting the third set, so you can still catch it at – https://t.co/ZCqeSAbX3u. 20-year-old WC Passaro is really giving Popko a run for his money. The youngster has some great fighting spirit.
📷: @ATPChallenger pic.twitter.com/B6Wp95ezso
— Damian Kust (@damiankust) July 12, 2021
Events held next week:
- Cary Challenger (Challenger 80, hard)
- President’s Cup II (Nur-Sultan, Challenger 80, hard)
- Open de Tenis Ciudad de Pozoblanco (Challenger 80, hard)
- Tampere Open (Challenger 80, clay)
First-round matches to watch:
- (4) Bjorn Fratangelo vs Brayden Schnur
- Noah Rubin vs (3) Maxime Cressy
- Thai-Son Kwiatkowski vs (2) Prajnesh Gunneswaran
- (3) Jay Clarke vs Andrey Kuznetsov
- Yun-Seong Chung vs (4) Hugo Grenier
- (4) Cem Ilkel vs Johannes Haerteis
- (5) Maxime Janvier vs Carlos Gimeno Valero
- (8) Guido Andreozzi vs Mats Moraing
- Nicolas Jarry vs (Alt) Jonas Forejtek
- Jiri Lehecka vs (3) Antoine Hoang
- (6) Kimmer Coppejans vs Dimitar Kuzmanov
- Gastao Elias vs (2) Henri Laaksonen
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