Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Maiden Winners Galore

Pavel Kotov, a Challenger Tour champion last week, in action.
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December on the Challenger Tour has traditionally provided a chance for some of the lower-ranked players to make deep runs and we certainly saw that this week with three maiden champions around the world. Maia had a final between two boys’ singles Roland Garros champions, while the 24-year-old Igor Marcondes stunned the home crowd with a title in Florianopolis. Here’s a look back at this week’s action?

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Maia

It had been a pretty disappointing year for Chun-Hsin Tseng. One of the best juniors in recent times (Wimbledon and French Open champion, Australian Open runner-up), the 20-year-old has been really successful on the ITF Tour in the past couple of seasons, but was rarely able to translate that form to the higher levels. But that changed at the Maia Challenger as Tseng made good use of the slow conditions to reach the final in straight sets, impressing in counter-punching victories against Calvin Hemery and Andrej Martin.

The other finalist turned out to be an even bigger surprise, although just like Tseng, he is a former Grand Slam champion in juniors (Roland Garros 2016). Geoffrey Blancaneaux was yet to progress past the quarterfinal stage of a Challenger (failing five times before), but he didn’t even need to do that here, receiving a walkover from Gastao Elias after two hard-fought three-set wins. The final four saw him score a massive upset over last week’s Antalya champion, Nuno Borges. Down a break twice in the opening set, Blancaneaux fought back and bageled the increasingly frustrated Portuguese to make his first final at that level.

Tseng was the better player for a set and a half but wasn’t able to quite secure the title when he could. The Frenchman got more comfortable and began exposing the opponent’s overly defensive mindset and lacking power. Blancaneaux quickly found a way to turn the match around and dominated the deciding set, breaking his opponent three times to grab his maiden Challenger title. Both players have secured their Australian Open qualifying spots with these runs. Tseng is scheduled to play in the second event in Maia, while Blancaneaux opted to withdraw.

Forli

The veteran Andrea Arnaboldi played seventeen Challenger semifinals in his career, but only managed to reach the championship match once (losing to Constant Lestienne in Portoroz three years ago). The eighteenth attempt saw him face 18-year-old Luca Nardi, one of the brightest Italian talents. Experience played its part in that win as Arnaboldi found a way to finally get himself another chance at a maiden Challenger title at 33-years-old.

Pavel Kotov is certainly at a different stage of his career, but was also seeking his first Challenger title and owned a negative win/loss record in semifinals at this level (although not to that extent, just 1-3). The Russian survived a thriller against Zizou Bergs in the opening round (7-5 in the third), before going on to raise his level as the week went on. Having defeated Arnaboldi in straight sets less than a month ago, he had to be considered a favorite to do it again.

Kotov opened up by creating a lot of opportunities on Arnaboldi’s serve and looked to be in complete control until having to take an emergency medical time out at 4-1 0-15 in the opening set. The issue was hard to determine from the stream but the Russian seemed to be distracted as he lost the next two games. He finally gathered himself together and closed out the set, continually pressuring Arnaboldi from the baseline to keep him behind and not let him play his game.

Kotov had three consecutive match points at 6-4 5-3, but the 33-year-old Italian was not ready to give up yet and saved them all with in impressive fashion. The fourth one turned out to be too much though as Kotov clinched his maiden Challenger title and with that a spot in the Australian Open qualifying. Arnaboldi should be right on the verge of that and won’t add any more points as he decided to withdraw from the last event of the season in Maia.

Florianopolis

The 24-year-old Marcondes only featured on the Challenger Tour twice before this season, but with the last few events this year taking place in Brazil, he got the chance to play the qualifying in both Sao Paulo and Florianopolis. He took advantage of both opportunities, reaching the second round last week and then having by far the best week of his career. Marcondes didn’t drop a set on the way to the quarterfinals before benefitting from Pablo Cuevas’ second-set retirement (he was down 2-6 4-1 at the time). The lefty proved that his spot in the semifinals is very deserved by taking out Juan Ignacio Londero, coming back from a break down in the decider.

Hugo Dellien has enjoyed a brilliant South American circuit this year, taking titles in Lima and Montevideo and never falling in the opening round. The Bolivian exacted very comfortable revenge on Hernan Casanova in the second round (who beat him in Brasilia two weeks earlier) but struggled a bit more than expected in the next two matches with Facundo Juarez even leading him by a set and a break at one point. Despite making the final, it all left some doubts about Dellien’s form ahead of the clash with Marcondes.

But the end result wasn’t really about the Bolivian’s form, it was about how well the home crowd favorite played in the championship match. Marcondes was basically blasting forehand winners left and right for most of the match. The second set got a bit messier as the Brazilian also had to take a medical timeout, but managed to up his game yet again to take the title 6-2 6-4. The 80 points Marcondes collected have propel him almost 200 places up the rankings. Dellien, after his defeat, decided not to play in Rio de Janeiro this week, while the Florianopolis champion received a special exempt into the main draw.

Antalya

Despite losing to Cezar Cretu in the final qualifying round, Oleg Prihodko managed to use his lucky loser spot to the fullest and make his maiden Challenger final. The tournament in Antalya was a main draw debut at this level for the 24-year-old Ukrainian, who is enjoying the best season of his career, situated at world #702 in the ATP Rankings before the event. Prihodko captured his first professional title at M15 Telavi in the summer and kicked off his Antalya run with wins over much more experienced Riccardo Bonadio and Duck Hee Lee. He was able to take out top-seeded Cem Ilkel in the quarterfinals, before going on to get back from a set down to beat Giovanni Fonio.

Evgenii Tiurnev was the absolute surprise package of Challenger winners this season, triumphing in St. Petersburg and never really threatening to win any event again. The Russian’s big forehand is not really a great fit for clay courts but he was able to utilize it effectively anyway to make his second final at this level. On the road to the championship match, Tiurnev lost three sets but was never really in danger of going out, winning all three deciders rather comfortably.

It was experience that made the difference in the final, although Tiurnev lost a 4-1 lead in the deciding set but managed to gain the upper hand again. Despite a hyper-aggressive playstyle, the Russian knew when to roll back and just make Prihodko have to win the points. His dropshot was a massive weapon too, either ending the point on the spot or followed up with a great passing shot.

Tiurnev took the final 3-6 6-4 6-4 and will re-enter the top 300. Prihodko jumps 162 ranking spots to a career-high World No. 546. The lucky loser grabs a special exempt to the Challenger in Maia next week, where he is due to face Eduard Esteve Lobato in the opening round. Tiurnev ends his season on the high note of a second Challenger title.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Maia Open 2 (Challenger 80, indoor clay)
  • Rio Tennis Classic (Challenger 80, hard)

There will be no top 100 players in action.

First-round matches to watch:

Maia

  • Gerald Melzer vs (8) Goncalo Oliveira
  • (5) Nuno Borges vs Riccardo Bonadio
  • (ALT) Oleksii Krutykh vs (4) Gastao Elias

Rio de Janeiro

  • Genaro Alberto Olivieri vs (PR) Guilherme Clezar
  • Hernan Casanova vs (4) Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida

Main photo:Embed from Getty Images