Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Alex Molcan and Sebastian Baez Break the Top 100

Sebastian Baez a champion on the ATP Challenger Tour.

Two of the most rapidly improving players on the ATP Challenger Tour managed to grab their top 100 spots before the end of the season (and with them, a secure main draw spot at the Australian Open). Stefan Kozlov achieved it in a different way, clinching the USTA Australian Open wildcard challenge. Read back on this week’s action:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Pau

After a dreadful middle part of the season, Radu Albot is finally picking up some steam. The Moldovan reached the quarterfinals in Roanne last week and made a considerable upset at that stage this time around, taking out the veteran Feliciano Lopez. To reach the final, Albot had to stop a resurgent run from Sergiy Stakhovsky, who said he was probably playing the last Challenger of his career (having stated his intention to retire after the Ukraine – Norway Davis Cup tie). The 35-year-old was unsurprisingly to give himself a proper send-off and fought Albot all the way to a deciding set, only the Moldovan managed to regain control there.

Jiri Lehecka lost to the almost unbeatable Tallon Griekspoor in the last eight in Bratislava last week and managed to pick up right where he left off in Pau with a win over Gilles Simon. The recently turned 20-year-old had to stop an unbelievable performance from Calvin Hemery in the next round, barely escaping while the Frenchman served for the match in the deciding set. Lehecka proved his great form by making his fourth final this year, fending off Holger Rune, who was just a match away from the top 100.

Despite being a sizeable underdog in the final, Albot came out of the blocks fast and controlled Lehecka’s power beautifully to take the opening set 6-2. The Moldovan’s experience shone through in how he was able to outsmart the youngster in a variety of situations. A controversial line call in the second set tiebreak allowed Albot to level at 5-5 (would be two set points in the other case, the crowd booed the umpire) and the 32-year-old grabbed the next two points to take the match and his eighth Challenger title (first at any level since Delray Beach 2019).

Albot will now head to Bahrain to play the Challenger event in Manama. Lehecka has been nominated for the Davis Cup Finals and in this form, might just be among the Czech Republic’s two best players at the moment. Lehecka also broke the top 150 for the very first time.

Helsinki

Alex Molcan came very close to reaching the top 100 in the previous two weeks, but fell at the last hurdle. This time, however, the Slovakian almost found himself out of the tournament in the opening round. But he survived a thigh injury to come back from 3-5 0-30 in the decider to beat Tim van Rijthoven. He recovered well and Molcan was able to raise his level, taking out Oscar Otte in the quarterfinals, a win that almost guaranteed him a debut in the world’s best hundred. Due to Feliciano Lopez losing in Pau, Molcan knew he got it even before his next match. The 23-year-old swiftly defeated Alexander Shevchenko in the final four and made another final in his last tournament of the year.

Joao Sousa has finally found some form, reaching the final in Brest just a couple of weeks ago. Despite that, the Portuguese’s first two wins in Helsinki looked very scrappy and had him losing focus way too often. It came as a surprise that the 32-year-old was able to raise his level as he progressed through the draw and put up two of his best performances in recent times to beat Liam Broady and Henri Laaksonen. The Portuguese avoided any mental lapses and played high-quality tennis from start to finish in both of these clashes.

Sousa maintained his quality early on and grabbed the early break. Yet inexplicably, the Portuguese lost 9 of the next 10 points and never looked quite the same after that. Molcan punished him with a couple of stunning forehands on the run and regained control over the match, taking it 6-3 6-2. The Slovakian finished his season by breaking the top 100 for the very first time. Sousa also isn’t signed up for any Challengers in the next weeks,

Champaign

Aleksandar Vukic lost to Stefan Kozlov in the final in Charlottesville two weeks ago, then again in the first round in Knoxville the week after. As luck (or rather good form) would have it, the two would face each other again in the championship match in Champaign. To get there, the Australian eliminated four of his opponents without dropping a set and lost his serve just four times. Only Yosuke Watanuki was able to take him to a tiebreak. It’s worth noting that the tournament was played on the courts where Vukic played college tennis at the University of Illinois.

Meanwhile, Stefan Kozlov dropped his opening set of the tournament to JC Aragone, but quickly got back on the right track and started doing as well as he’s been as summer. The big story of the event was his and J. J. Wolf’s race for the USTA Australian Open wildcard challenge and as it turned out, their fourth meeting this year would be a winner takes all scenario. Kozlov improved his 2021 head-to-head against Wolf to 3-1 and secured a Grand Slam main draw debut. But before he could fully appreciate that success, there was one more match the 23-year-old had to play in Champaign.

Kozlov is definitely an unpleasant opponent for Vukic, mostly due to his unique technique which allows him to absorb and redirect power very well through the use of flat, off-pace balls. The Australian made a very good effort though, taking the opening set and getting Kozlov very low on energy by the time they entered the deciding set. The chance was there for the taking, but the 25-year-old failed to step up.

The American took his 3rd Challenger title this year (5th overall), and will be the new World No. 159 on Monday. He chose to withdraw from next week’s event in Puerto Vallarta, while Vukic isn’t signed up for anything in the foreseeable future.

Campinas

Despite multiple rain delays in Campinas, Thiago Monteiro somehow managed to avoid playing two matches in one day. That doesn’t mean the Brazilian had it easy though. 4-5 30-40 down in the deciding set to Timofey Skatov in the quarterfinals, Monteiro put in a first serve out wide that lured a return error out of his opponent. The 27-year-old rallied to take it in a deciding set tiebreak, before falling a set down in the semifinals to Tomas Martin Etcheverry. The Argentinian was looking really dominant in the early stages,  but Monteiro was able to regain control and secure his third final across the past two months.

Sebastian Baez had it a little messier schedule-wise, having to win both his quarterfinal and the semifinal on the same day. The Argentinian was down 2-6 5-6 to Santiago Fa Rodriguez Taverna and had to break his opponent to stay in the match (and the tournament). Despite that draining clash, he still had enough gas in the tank left to take out Francisco Cerundolo just a couple of hours after. By doing that, Baez reached his ninth Challenger final of the season (in just 14 attempts).

The 20-year-old was essentially unplayable in set one and it was only after a lengthy toilet break when Monteiro started getting any sort of grip on what was going on in the match. With the lively support of the home crowd, the Brazilian caught up with Baez for a couple of absolutely breath-taking rallies (one of which features below), but it was all to no avail as the South American Challenger king of 2021 pulled off another great victory 6-1 6-4.

Baez’s sixth title this year allows him to break the top 100 for the very first time. The 20-year-old intends to keep playing Challenger events in the weeks to come, while Monteiro is not signed up for any in the next three weeks.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Open Citta di Bari (Challenger 80, hard)
  • Puerto Vallarta Open (Challenger 80, hard)
  • Bahrain Ministry of Interior Tennis Challenger (Manama, Challenger 80, hard)
  • Aberto da Republica (Brasilia, Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Carlos Taberner (Bari)
  • Pablo Cuevas, Daniel Altmaier (Puerto Vallarta)
  • Federico Coria, Jaume Munar, Sebastian Baez (Brasilia)

First-round matches to watch:

Bari

  • Julian Lenz vs Tim van Rijthoven
  • (WC) Luca Nardi vs (4) Maxime Cressy

Puerto Vallarta

  • (1) Pablo Cuevas vs Aleksandar Kovacevic
  • (WC) Juncheng Shang vs (ALT) Martin Cuevas
  • Alexis Galarneau vs (4) Ernesto Escobedo

A Challenger debut for the 2021 US Open boys’ singles runner-up Juncheng Shang. He almost took out Liam Broady in Miami this year and recently played a four-week stretch of 15K ITFs in the United States, winning three of them.

Manama

  • Ryan Peniston vs (4) Christopher O’Connell
  • Ergi Kirkin vs (2) Cem Ilkel

Brasilia

  • Nicolas Jarry vs (5) Hugo Dellien
  • (6) Tomas Martin Etcheverry vs Nicolas Kicker
  • (7) Thiago Seyboth Wild vs Facundo Diaz Acosta

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


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