Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: JJ Wolf Wins First Title Post-Surgery, Brandon Nakashima Routines the Field in Brest

Brandon Nakashima US Open Round 2

Nicolas Jarry is slowly building up his ranking after coming back from a doping suspension, while J. J. Wolf got back to winning ways after a hiatus that was caused by abdominal surgery. Meanwhile, Brandon Nakashima completely dominated the field in Brest. Read back on this week’s action:

Brest

Brandon Nakashima lost his serve just twice on his way to the final, facing a breakpoint on only three occasions. It wasn’t the toughest possible path, but it still required him to take out Henri Laaksonen and Bernabe Zapata Miralles in straight sets. The businesslike quality of the American’s run was quite impressive as he was never really in danger of losing a set, let alone a match.

Dropping down to the Challenger level has benefitted Joao Sousa, allowing him to finally regain some confidence and find the rhythm. Going a bit under the radar, the Portuguese won consecutive matches at three straight events and made his first final since the ATP 250 event in Estoril back in 2018. In the quarterfinals, he eliminated Federico Gaio in a 6-3 6-7 7-6 thriller, before taking out Maxime Janvier in the final four.

Nakashima continued his unbroken streak, finishing the tournament at 37 consecutive holds. The final was just another routine victory – even though the American lost a marathon game at 3-0 in the second set, the momentum didn’t shift in Sousa’s favor. Nakashima dropped a mere 12 points on serve and never faced a breakpoint in a 6-3 6-3 victory.

His 3rd Challenger title brings him up to World No. 65 in the ATP Rankings. He’ll now rest up, before presumably participating in the Next Gen Finals, a spot in which he secured this week. Sousa is signed up to play in Tenerife.

Ismaning

Oscar Otte qualified for three straight Grand Slams this year, but his Challenger results were actually quite underwhelming with just one final before this week (Prague). The German had never reached an indoor final at this level, which was quite surprising given his big serve and attacking playing style. It required gutsy deciding tie-break wins over Maximilian Marterer (from 2-5 down) and Maxime Cressy, but the 28-year-old was great in the pressure moments and reached his second final of the season.

Lukas Lacko has mastered the art of coming out of nowhere to make deep runs in Challengers this year. A champion in Mallorca, the 33-year-old played just one match in a month before coming to the carpet in Ismaning, where he triumphed back in 2019. His expertise on this surface shined again as the veteran Slovak took a deciding tie-break to beat Tomas Machac, before going on to defeat Quentin Halys in the semifinals.

Otte’s big advantage in Sunday’s final was the serve and return. The German blasted 11 aces and won 91% of points behind his first serve, never facing a breakpoint. He was able to move very well in defense and actually stick around Lacko in many extended rallies. He created seven opportunities to break the Slovakian and took one in each set to win his 3rd Challenger title 6-4 6-4.

The run at Ismaning allowed Otte to grab a career-high ranking of World No. 127. Both players will feature in the second carpet event of the season in Eckental.

Las Vegas

J. J. Wolf reached his first final since undergoing abdominal surgery, which forced him to start his season in July. The 22-year-old had been just 5-8 for the season before this week, although most of the losses came to quality opposition. His run in Las Vegas saw him eliminate three of the best American Challenger specialists – Denis Kudla, Michael Mmoh, and Ernesto Escobedo. Only the veteran Kudla was able to take a set off Wolf.

After a couple of seasons that didn’t go his way at all, Stefan Kozlov picked up some form recently, winning the Columbus Challenger (took out Wolf in the semifinals). The 23-year-old survived an absolute thriller to beat Aidan McHugh in the second round – it ended in a 15-13 deciding tie-break with Kozlov saving eight match points and performing a victory dance that balanced between delightfully dorky and a bit disrespectful. He would then take out Emilio Gomez and Aleksandar Kovacevic in a much more regular fashion.

The matchup is very unpleasant for Wolf as Kozlov’s off-pace balls really test his patience and shot selection. The 22-year-old came very close to beating his compatriot in straight sets in Columbus and didn’t falter this time around as the opportunity presented itself. Wolf took the final 6-4 6-4, putting up a very composed and organized performance to break through Kozlov’s tricky style.

It’s his 5th Challenger title and the since an over half-a-year-long hiatus. He’ll be back up to World No. 160 in the ATP Rankings on Monday. Both finalists intend to play in Charlottesville next week.

Lima

Nicolas Jarry had a couple of more quiet weeks as he went out in the opening rounds at Santiago (to Gerald Melzer), and Bogota (to Enzo Couacaud). The big-serving Chilean was playing better than the results suggested though and he showcased that this week with a stunning run to the final. Never dropping a set, he got broken just twice and very comfortably dispatched Vit Kopriva in the semifinals.

Juan Manuel Cerundolo has been just phenomenal at winning tough thrillers recently and that tenacity of his was on full display again as he run away with the matches against Hugo Dellien and Juan Pablo Varillas. Particularly in the latter one, also with the crowd against him, he was looking gassed but started allowing himself for more aggression on the forehand side and beautifully navigated the deciding set to an end. It was his 28th victory in 82 days (just seven losses in that period).

Jarry’s big advantage on serve and return was obvious from the get-go as the Chilean was absolutely killing the ball in the early rallies. Cerundolo would grab a break in the middle of the second set, but it was instantly earned back by Jarry and he proceeded to take the match 6-2 7-5. His kick serve was just phenomenal and the Argentinian’s loopy shots fell right into his strike zone.

Jarry’s fifth Challenger title allowed him to make his way back to World No. 162. Having fallen out of the ATP Rankings in October last year due to a doping suspension, the Chilean was still unranked in February 2021. Both finalists chose to withdraw from Guayaquil.

Challenger Tour magic:

Kozlov’s aforementioned victory dance:

Nicolas Mejia with a “100% skill” shot:

Juan Manuel Cerundolo’s deadly spin:

Events held next week:

  • Trofeo Faip-Perrel (Bergamo, Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Challenger Eckental (Challenger 80, indoor carpet)
  • Tenerife Challenger (Challenger 80, hard)
  • Charlottesville Men’s Pro Challenger (Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Challenger Ciudad de Guayaquil (Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Jordan Thompson, Jiri Vesely (Bergamo)
  • Tallon Griekspoor (Tenerife)
  • Vasek Pospisil, Denis Kudla (Charlottesville)
  • Jaume Munar, Facundo Bagnis (Guayaquil)

First-round matches to watch:

Bergamo

  • Mikhail Kukushkin vs (6) Zdenek Kolar
  • (WC) Flavio Cobolli vs Damir Dzumhur

Eckental

  • (1) Jordan Thompson vs (WC) Mats Rosenkranz
  • Maximilian Marterer vs (8) Kacper Żuk
  • (5) Tomas Machac vs Jack Draper
  • Dominic Stricker vs (3) Jurij Rodionov

Tenerife

  • Timofey Skatov vs (6) Altug Celikbilek
  • Dalibor Svrcina vs (2/WC) Feliciano Lopez

Charlottesville

  • (1) Vasek Pospisil vs (WC) Emilio Nava
  • (ALT) Stefan Kozlov vs (7) Bjorn Fratangelo
  • Mikael Torpegaard vs (4) Jack Sock

Guayaquil

  • (4) Sebastian Baez vs Nicolas Kicker
  • Vit Kopriva vs (5) Francisco Cerundolo

Main Photo from Getty Images


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