As Andrea Pellegrino’s leaping backhand-down-the-line sailed wide, Dmitry Popko stayed cool as a cucumber. He calmly walked up to the net as if it were the first round of an ITF match, yet it was the biggest title of the 24-year-old Kazakh’s career. Popko had won the Lisbon Challenger with a 6-2 6-4 win over the Italian on the Portuguese clay.
Popko had never won a Challenger before, going 0-2 in his previous two attempts in Challenger finals. His first crack at winning a Challenger final was in the 2019 clay-court Shymkent Challenger, where Popko took the first set off of Andrej Martin, but eventually cracked, losing in three sets.
The Shymkent Challenger was the final tournament of a terrific start to the 2019 season in which Popko won seven ITF events, made the final of another, and then had his run in Shymkent. Popko’s ranking rose from World No. 620 in February 2019 to World No. 350 by the end of May. It’s worth noting that every tournament that Popko reached the final in during that run was on clay.
Popko even beat Sebastian Korda for three of those seven ITF titles!
In total, Popko snagged 18 ITF titles from 2015 to 2019 and was establishing himself as a player to look out for in professional tennis, but after losing that set lead in the Shymkent final against Martin, while Popko’s ranking improved to an extent, he never had the big breakthrough that would catapult him onto the ATP Tour and the tennis world’s radar.
Popko would go on to make three additional Challenger quarterfinals and two more Challenger semifinals during the 2019 season, rising into the top 200 by November 2019. And before the pandemic hiatus in March 2020, the Kazakh even made the final qualifying round at the Australian Open and reached another Challenger semifinal.
Yet, notice how when Popko started playing Challengers, while there was a lot of talk about quarterfinals and semifinals, finals and titles dried up. And it reflected in Popko’s ranking, which was never above World No. 167 and never below World No. 186 in 2020 before the pandemic. In fact, remarkably, from the start of the 2020 season until last week, Popko had hovered somewhere in the ATP rankings between World No. 165 and World No. 195.
While the Kazakh had established himself as a solid presence on the Challenger Tour, his good-but-not-great results had caused a stagnation in the rankings. And while he also made the final qualifying round of the 2020 French Open, as was the story of his post-Futures Tour career, he came up just short, losing to Emilio in a final-set tiebreak.
Popko’s results, when looking at his game, make sense. He has remarkable consistency and depth from the baseline, but when he’s not totally in-gear, he doesn’t have the power to hit through opponents on big points when a free or easy point is such a benefit and he’s forced to grind through his opponents.
Now, some of the lower-level Challenger players that Popko faces can’t hit through him and he’s generally able to grind through these type of players, but the guys he sees towards the end of Challenger tournaments have the controlled aggression to hit through Popko and make the Kazakh uncomfortable on the court.
Since Wimbledon, Popko kicked his game into a higher gear than before, which culminated in today’s Challenger title. Since Wimbledon, Popko has three more Challenger quarterfinals appearances, a semifinal appearance, and two finals appearances (including Lisbon).
The first of his final appearances since Wimbledon was in August at the clay-court Prague Challenger. Dailbor Svrcina beat Popko 6-0, 7-5 to take the title.
That was actually a very concerning for Popko, as he was completely discombobulated and without a clear game plan. The pressure to win a Challenger and Popko’s inability to hit through Svrcina’s defenses created a nightmare scenario for the Kazakh.
Yet, this past week in Lisbon, Popko demonstrated what he could do when his game all comes together. Now, he wasn’t blasting players off of the court, but the placement of his serve and groundstrokes was completely on-point and he was able to effectively move opponents around the court and hit into small openings.
And, this week, when things got tight, such as in the quarterfinals when Popko had to save two match points against Joao Domingues, or even in the final when Pellegrino broke back in the second set when Popko was a set-and-a-break up, the Kazakh responded.
Against Domingues, after saving those match points, Popko didn’t lose another game. And against Pellegrino, Popko immediately broke the Italian’s serve again.
Popko also had an impressive victory over Hugo Gaston the semifinals of Lisbon, sandwiched in-between the Domingues and Pellegrino matches.
Overall, in Lisbon, only Gaston won at least 45% of his second-serve points against Popko. And, while Gaston won 55% of the points on his second serve, he only won 48% of his first serves!
In addition, opponents got broken 23 times against Popko over the course of the tournament. This is an average of 4.6 breaks per match!
Popko will now have a new career-high in the ATP rankings, as he is currently World No. 164 in the live rankings. Can he make a further push up the rankings? Where does Popko go from here?
He will have to take the consistency and depth that he brings to the table on a weekly and show that the precision that he had on his serve and especially his groundstrokes is here to stay. Popko’s court-craft this week was also had a very high level, whereas when he’s not playing quite as well, some of the craftiness he showed goes away.
Because Popko isn’t among the most powerful players on the tour, even when he’s playing well, he will have to continue to rely on hitting into tight windows and the shrewdness that he demonstrated all week in Lisbon.
And we have seen, given the run that Popko made on the Futures Tour in 2019, how he can go on a tear when he has confidence? Are we going to see this type of run for the Kazakh at the Challenger level now that he got the monkey off his back and won his first Challenger? It’s certainly possible.
But, while Popko might be in the Barcelona Challenger draw, that’s probably not on his mind at the moment.
With as tough as it has been to win a Challenger, Dmitry Popko should savor every moment of this crowning achievement in his career.
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