Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Seventh Teenage Winner of the Season; An All-Turkish Final

Altug Celikbilek Cordoba Challenger

For the second time in ATP Challenger Tour history, there was a final contested between two players coming from Turkey. In Tampere, Jiri Lehecka joined Carlos Alcaraz, Holger Rune, Dominic Stricker, Juan Manuel Cerundolo, Brandon Nakashima, and Carlos Gimeno Valero as the 7th teenage titlist of the season. Read back on this week’s action:

Tampere

On the rise since the beginning of the season, 19-year-old Jiri Lehecka lifted two ITF titles earlier in the year, but was still seeking his first breakthrough on the Challenger Tour. The Czech youngster lost to Nicolas Jarry two weeks before in the quarterfinals at Salzburg, and managed to take revenge for that loss in the second round here. Lehecka was in amazing form throughout the event, not losing more than four games in a set on the way to his maiden final. In the final four, he took out lucky loser Kyrian Jacquet in just 51 minutes.

Nicolas Kicker came back to the tour in January, after serving a 2,5-year suspension for match-fixing. At first, he grabbed a few wildcards for tour-level events, but only moderate success forced him to go down levels. The Argentinian won four ITF titles, compiling a stunning 29-1 win/loss record. Doing that allowed him to get into the qualifying at Tampere, his second Challenger event of the season. Kicker not only qualified but also managed to take out a set of very tough opponents like last week’s Todi champion Mario Vilella Martinez or the Amersfoort runner-up, Botic Van de Zandschulp.

Lehecka managed to stop Kicker’s incredible streak in Sunday’s final, taking his maiden Challenger Tour title 5-7 6-4 6-3. The 19-year-old is now just about 20 points away from debuting in the top 200, while Kicker also made a significant ranking leap. Both finalists will go to Poznan, where Kicker received a special exempt due to not being able to play in the qualifying draw. The draw gods weren’t kind to them as the Argentinian has to go against the third seed Henri Laaksonen, and Lehecka takes on the always dangerous on a given day Tristan Lamasine.

Pozoblanco

Cem Ilkel had not been able to push past the semifinal stage at the Challenger Tour this year, going out at that stage three times (Antalya, Potchefstroom, Rome). He advanced to the final four not dropping a set this time around, saving three set points against Johannes Haerteis in the opening round. But on a late Saturday evening, he had to endure a marathon against Michael Geerts, and by the end of it, he wasn’t looking alright physically.

Along with Altug Celikbilek, this makes for a second all-Turkish Challenger final in the history of the circuit. Five years ago, Ilkel lost to Marsel Ilhan at Izmir five years ago, this time it happened on foreign soil in Pozoblanco. It’s been a breakthrough season for the 24-year-old, who first reached his maiden Challenger final at Saint Petersburg, and then grabbed his first title at that level in Porto (defeated Quentin Halys). Celikbilek took a break after the latter of the events and kept up his winning streak all the way to the championship match in Pozoblanco. He was almost out of the tournament at the first hurdle though, down 2-5 in the deciding set to Skander Mansouri. The Turk benefitted from Gregoire Barrere’s third-set retirement in the semifinals.

The final was also a battle for the Turkish No. 1 status. Ilkel’s energy levels seemed pretty low early on as Celikbilek was able to break twice and dominate the opening set. The older of the Turks didn’t give up though and despite not creating any chances on his opponent’s serve, got the second set to a tie-breaker and won it. Despite a minor setback, Celikbilek emerged as the better player again to keep his status of the best Turk in men’s tennis and take the match 6-1 6-7 6-3. Both finalists will stay in Spain and play in the Segovia Challenger,

Nur-Sultan

Former World No. 39 Andrey Kuznetsov made a comeback after two and a half years of inactivity last August. In that period, he even worked as a consultant coach for Evgeny Donskoy and it was unclear whether he would ever return to professional tennis. He’s probably very glad that he did right now, making his first Challenger Tour final in almost six years. The Russian has been improving month by month (reached an ITF final at Saint Petersburg in February), until he was finally able to put together a great run at Nur-Sultan. Last week, he was eliminated by Peter Polansky and he was able to return the favor in the quarterfinals this time around.

The other finalist has also been tormented by injuries throughout his career. Jason KublerĀ was a top 100 player in 2018, but hadn’t made a semifinal at this level since January 2020. From the start of the pandemic, he only competed in Australian events until leaving for Orlando in June this year. Despite losing early to Jenson Brooksby, he opted to stay in the States for a bit longer and clinched a massive confidence boost with his first title in almost two years at M15 Champaign. Kubler lost to eventual runner-up Jay Clarke in the first event in Nur-Sultan, and despite being down a break in the deciding set to Chun-Hsin Tseng, he managed to make it to his ninth Challenger Tour final the week after.

Unfortunately, Kubler couldn’t really keep up with Kuznetsov in the final due to a muscle tear. Receiving a retirement victory from his opponent at 6-3 2-1 up, the Russian grabbed his 8th Challenger Tour title. Interestingly, this was his first trophy off-clay on this circuit, he only had one indoor final from Tyumen Challenger eight years ago. After leaving the top 300 on the 23rd of July 2018, Kuznetsov will come back to that group after three years and three days on Monday.

Kubler is signed up to play in Lexington next week, but his participation is obviously under a huge question mark now. Kuznetsov isn’t signed up to play any tournament in the upcoming weeks.

Cary

It had been a decent year for Mitchell Krueger, highlighted by the semifinal run at Little Rock (lost to eventual champion Jack Sock). His opener at Cary finished with a third set tie-breaker, as the recent college graduate and the first-ever 10-time All-American, William Blumberg, proved that he’s got what it takes to challenge seasoned pros like Krueger. The 27-year-old still came out on top and would lose just one more set against Genaro Alberto Oliveri before the final, getting back to that stage of a Challenger after 2.5 years.

Ramkumar Ramanathan had an okay-ish grass-court season with a couple of disappointing losses, including one to Krueger in the final round of qualifying at Newport. The Indian managed to translate his all-court game beautifully to the hard-courts at Cary and was the king of deciding sets all week. Aleksandar Kovacevic, Alexis Galarneau, Stefan Kozlov, and Prajnesh Gunneswaran all took him to a third set, but neither of them was able to land the finishing blow.

Dramatic finals is what we live for, but not necessarily in this way. After going down a set, Ramkumar Ramanathan took a medical time-out for a leg problem and clearly ailing, showed that he is a very sore loser. The Indian got into multiple fights with the umpire about being or not being ready to serve or return. The most heated argument came when Ramanathan, already prepared to return, suddenly decided to tie his shoe. Krueger aced him and the chair umpire rightfully gave the point to the American. Even calling the supervisor couldn’t save Ramanathan and he promptly went on to lose the match 7-6 6-2.

Krueger scored his 2nd Challenger title (Dallas 2019) and solidified his position in the top 200 of the ATP Rankings. Both finalists are in the draw at Lexington next week, where the champion got the short stick with second seed Alex Bolt in his opening round.

Events held next week:

  • Poznan Open (Challenger 90, clay)
  • Open Castilla y Leon (Segovia, Challenger 90, hard)
  • Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships (Lexington, Challenger 80, hard)
  • Internazionali di Tennis di Citta di Trieste (Challenger 80, clay)

Feliciano Lopez will be the only top 100 player in action (Segovia).

First-round matches to watch:

Poznan

  • (1) Bernabe Zapata Miralles vs Kimmer Coppejans
  • (3) Henri Laaksonen vs (SE) Nicolas Kicker
  • Vit Kopriva vs (7) Dmitry Popko
  • Jiri Lehecka vs Tristan Lamasine

Segovia

  • (4) Marc-Andrea Huesler vs Tim van Rijthoven
  • Cem Ilkel vs (2) Benjamin Bonzi

Lexington

  • Christian Harrison vs (8) Thanasi Kokkinakis
  • (4) Prajnesh Gunneswaran vs Peter Polansky
  • Mitchell Krueger vs (2) Alex Bolt

Trieste

  • (WC) Luca Nardi vs Maximilian Marterer
  • (5) Alessandro Gianessi vs Rudolf Molleker
  • Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves vs (2) Antoine Hoang

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