Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Nardi and Rodriguez Taverna Claim Maiden Titles

Ernesto Escobedo, a champion on the ATP Challenger Tour.

The 2022 ATP Challenger Tour got off to a great start. Two 48-player fields in Bendigo and Traralgon allowed the players who will try their best in Australian Open qualifying to have a warm-up event. Meanwhile, Forli and Buenos Aires organized Challenger 50 events for mostly lower-ranked competition (or ones that decided to skip Australia). Read back on this week’s action:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Bendigo

Ernesto Escobedo is coming off a very uneven season, one that had him showcase some of the quality that made him a top 100 player back in the day just as often as losing matches he was heavily favored to win. The 25-year-old played very well the whole week in Bendigo though, dropping his serve just twice on his way to the final. The only opponent who got close to taking him out was Vit Kopriva, but Escobedo managed to pull off the victory in a comfortable deciding-set tiebreak.

Enzo Couacaud dropped a set in all four matches he needed to play to get to the finals, always prevailing in a deciding set. The scary moments included racing Nicolas Kicker down from 1-4 in the third and saving five match points to beat Quentin Halys 6-7 7-6 7-5, one of them on the opponent’s serve. In the final four, Couacaud pulled off another three-set victory, this time against Franco Agamenone. In 2021, the Frenchman clinched one Challenger title in Gran Canaria. 

Escobedo’s situation in the final was looking quite grim with the American taking a medical timeout at 5-7 1-2 down. The visit from the physio certainly helped though as the 25-year-old was able to start inflicting more damage with his forehand and improve his point construction, being more successful at breaking through Couacaud’s defences. The Frenchman’s level eventually dropped a bit as he stopped going for his shots too. Escobedo fought back and landed a key break at 5-5 in the decider to take it 5-7 6-3 7-5. The American took his fourth Challenger title and first since July 2019. He also reenters the top 150 on Monday, having left it in April 2018. Both players return to action in the qualifying for the Australian Open.

Traralgon

Tomas Machac finished his 2021 campaign with a strong performance at the Davis Cup Finals, beating Richard Gasquet and Dan Evans. The Czech kicked off his year with a third-set retirement from Harold Mayot, before playing much better as the week went on. The veteran Mikhail Kukushkin also took him to a deciding set, but Machac managed to prevail and win a key 24-minute game on the opponent’s serve. In the semifinals, he took out Jesper de Jong, making the fifth Challenger final of his career.

The other finalist survived two deciding set tiebreaks on the way to the championship match. Bjorn Fratangelo first defeated Jiri Lehecka in such a manner, then came back from 0-5 in the third to take out Mitchell Krueger. Despite reeling off six straight games, he was still forced to save two match points in the tiebreak, doing so with a forehand winner and an ace. It was Fratangelo’s first final outside the United States in five years.

Fratangelo opened with a series of terrific games where his forehand was the most important shot on the court. However, after going up by a break, the stroke started spraying some uncharacteristic errors. Perhaps it was due to weariness from two tough clashes in the preceding days. Machac seemed to have spotted it and stayed very consistent, exploiting Fratangelo’s issues.

The Czech ended up taking his third Challenger title 7-6 6-3 after a brilliant week. He also made a new career-high ranking of world #130. Both players will now head to Melbourne to play in the Australian Open qualifying.

Forli

Luca Nardi made the semifinals in his last event of 2021 in Forli and managed to top that achievement with his run here. The 18-year-old lost the opening set in each of his first three matches, not really playing his best but eventually finding the confidence and pulling off comeback victories. In the final four, he received a walkover from Cedrik-Marcel Stebe.

Sasikumar Mukund was an even bigger surprise. The Indian reached his only Challenger final back in 2019 in Baotou, but made very little impact at this level since. In December, he finished his season with two appearances at M15 ITFs in Doha and his form wasn’t looking great. The 24-year-old qualified for the event and didn’t drop a single set in any of his six matches on the way to the final. Mukund scored three slight upsets in the main draw, before shocking everyone with another win against Zsombor Piros, at that point regarded as the overwhelming favorite to take the title.

Unfortunately, the Indian couldn’t repeat his heroic performance in the final, getting into trouble in basically all of his service games. It didn’t help that Nardi pulled off his most comprehensive performance of the tournament, limiting the errors that saw him struggle earlier. The 18-year-old is now on the verge of breaking the top 300. Both finalists received a special exempt to the main draw in Forli next week (a higher category event, Challenger 80, while this one was a 50).

Buenos Aires

Santiago Rodriguez Taverna lost a set in his opening match to the powerful Mats Rosenkranz, but massively increased his level over the week. The 22-year-old’s powerful forehand was able to cover up for his backhand liabilities as he blasted through every single opponent. Rodriguez Taverna hadn’t been past the quarterfinals at a Challenger before, but managed to make that milestone with a great win over Hernan Casanova. In the final four, he gave Gonzalo Lama just four games.

The one year younger Facundo Diaz Acosta broke through at a similar time as his compatriot, impressing in last year’s South American Challenger circuit. Just like him, his best prior results were a couple of quarterfinals at this level. With a slightly easier path to the final, Diaz Acosta didn’t drop a set, defeating Murkel Dellien in the semifinals.

It was perhaps the battle of the best right-handed forehand in the whole field and the best left-handed one. Rodriguez Taverna’s more power-oriented stroke had him in a dominant position from the get-go as Diaz Acosta had to focus on building up the rally more. The 22-year-old was able to play the match on his own terms and his ability to inject pace from his forehand, even in weird positions like moving backwards, proved decisive in a 6-4 6-2 victory.

Rodriguez Taverna’s maiden Challenger title has him break the top 300 for the very first time. Diaz Acosta stays just outside that barrier. The runner-up will play in Blumenau next week, while the champion decided to rest up and withdrew.

Challenger Tour magic:

A throwback to the best shots of 2021:

Events held next week:

  • Internazionali di Tennis Citta di Forli 2 (Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Circuito Dove Men Care (Blumenau, Challenger 50, clay)

With most players in Australia either for ATP Tour events or the Australian Open qualifying, there will be no top 100 players in action.

First-round matches to watch:

Forli

  • (4) Pavel Kotov vs Marius Copil
  • Roberto Quiroz vs (8) Jack Draper
  • Evgenii Tiurnev vs (2) Antoine Hoang

Blumenau

  • (7) Carlos Gimeno Valero vs Goncalo Villanueva
  • Daniel Dutra da Silva vs Noah Rubin
  • Juan Bautista Torres vs (2) Orlando Luz

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images


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