Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Fernando Verdasco Becomes the 2nd Oldest Challenger Champion Ever

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This week’s ATP Challenger Tour featured three events on three different continents, giving the clay-courters a chance to compete in both Europe and South America, while others competed on hard courts at Monterrey. Fernando Verdasco became the second oldest title winner in the 44-year-long history of the tour, while Carlos Taberner and Hugo Dellien clinched titles in Roseto Degli Abruzzi and Santiago, respectively. Read back on this week’s action:

Monterrey

Fernando Verdasco picked up some steam during the Golden Swing, finally getting back to winning ways and holding up much better in baseline rallies. The strength of the field in Monterrey was seriously depleted due to most of the eligible players competing in Indian Wells qualifying, but the 38-year-old’s quarter was seriously stacked. To make the quarterfinals, the top seed had to eliminate Michael Mmoh and Aleksandar Kovacevic, two of the other potential title contenders. Christian Harrison was the first to take a set off Verdasco in the semifinals.

Someone who definitely hadn’t done well in a while was Prajnesh Gunneswaran. The Indian hadn’t made a single semifinal since Nur-Sultan in March last year and arrived in Monterrey with just two wins in five events of 2022. Gunneswaran came back from a set down to defeat Jason Jung and Go Soeda, surviving a scare, particularly against the latter as the Japanese led 4-1 in the deciding set. The 32-year-old secured his first final since Orlando 2020 (lost to Brandon Nakashima).

His run might have come out of nowhere, but Gunneswaran certainly proved his worth in the thrilling final. While his lefty forehand lacks the explosiveness of Verdasco’s, he held up very well in the rallies to take the opening set. The veteran Spaniard was really good at balancing the spin and the power on his favorite stroke though, regaining control of the match by patiently using it to build up the points.

It all got complicated again when Verdasco had the opportunity to serve out the match. Gunneswaran broke with a stunning forehand passing shot and the Spaniard soon found himself 5-6 0-30 down, getting into disputes with the crowd and throwing the ball out of the stadium. In the fashion of a true champion, he regained his focus and started a series of brilliant 1st serves that kept him alive, ultimately setting him up for a great win in the deciding tie-breaker.

Let’s talk about the age records – Verdasco is now the second oldest Challenger Tour champion ever (behind Ivo Karlovic) and has the third-longest gap between titles at this level (behind David Ferrer and Mikhail Youzhny, his only previous one came in Segovia 2007). He’s now scheduled to play in Phoenix with a protected ranking, before potentially playing Miami qualifying (third alternate at the time of writing). Gunneswaran will play a couple of 25K ITFs in Bakersfield and Calabasas.

Santiago

Alejandro Tabilo had a breakout campaign during the Golden Swing and while he was unable to secure a maiden ATP title (final in Cordoba, semifinal in Santiago), he locked up a top 100 debut and really established himself as one of the best South American clay-courters. Once again in Santiago, this time at a Challenger event, he was in amazing form again, dropping just one set on the way to the final (to Vit Kopriva in the final eight). Tabilo won his maiden title at this level at Guayaquil last year and has truly taken his game to a whole new dimension since then.

Hugo Dellien‘s February campaign was far less spectacular with the Bolivian only reaching the second round of an ATP event once. Sometimes the difference is made by just one point here or there and had Pedro Cachin converted his match point at 6-2 6-5 up in the opening round, Dellien would have played just one match in Santiago this week. However, the Argentinian couldn’t put a return back into play and let his opponent battle back. The Bolivian would have to survive one more thriller to make the final, defeating Tomas Martin Etcheverry in over 3,5 hours.

The home crowd favorite was the favorite coming into the championship match and while his forehand was in killer mode early on with four winners in the first two games, it was Dellien who took the opening set, proving that you don’t need a huge weapon to have your opponent on the back foot and construct beautiful clay-court points. The Bolivian pretty much had one very poor service game at 4-5 in the 2nd, but it cost him the set.

However, he was able to claw his way back 0-2 down in the decider, defending extremely well and forcing errors out of Tabilo. Dellien claimed his 8th Challenger title 6-3 4-6 6-4, a feat that should allow him to be back in the top 100 when the rankings are published after Indian Wells. The Bolivian is featured in the main draw at Concepcion next week (as the top seed), while Tabilo will go to the States and prepare for Miami qualifying.

Roseto Degli Abruzzi

Carlos Taberner hadn’t appeared in a Challenger in 2022 yet, posting three wins in five ATP Tour events. The Spaniard was top-seeded in Roseto Degli Abruzzi and while he didn’t drop a single set on his way to the championship match, the path was a little tougher than it seems. His match against Jozef Kovalik had him take the opener after over 90 minutes of momentum shifts, while Nicolas Sanchez Izquierdo had a 5-2 lead in the second set before losing the next five games. Taberner always stepped up when needed and made his 8th Challenger final.

Nuno Borges was forced to start his season a bit later than expected, testing positive for COVID-19 right before the Australian Open qualifying event. The Portuguese had only played two Challengers indoors this year and a return to his favorite clay definitely helped his cause. After defeating Kamil Majchrzak in Davis Cup the week before, Borges emerged on a very topsy-turvy campaign in Roseto Degli Abruzzi. His level was quite uneven, particularly in the matches against Italians – Matteo Arnaldi held a match point against him that finished in a 20-shot rally, while Flavio Cobolli came back from 1-6 0-4 to force a deciding set. Borges survived and just like Taberner, made his 1st final of the year.

Borges was the one taking the initiative early on in the final, but the scoreline didn’t reflect this at all. The Portuguese lived and died by his forehand, while Taberner quietly counterpunched and barely missed a ball. The top seed had this aura of inevitability about him, making life a nightmare for his opponent. While Borges hit a pretty decent patch of play early on in the second, the whole affair ended up being a rather forgettable 6-2 6-3 victory for the Spaniard, who broke his opponent five times.

His 5th Challenger title should grant Taberner a return to the top 100 after Indian Wells. Both finalists will stay in Roseto Degli Abruzzi for one more week, playing another event there.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Arizona Tennis Classic (Phoenix, Challenger 125, hard)
  • Regione Abruzzo Aterno Gas & Power Cup (Roseto Degli Abruzzi, Challenger 80, clay)
  • Challenger del Biobio (Concepcion, Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Benoit Paire, Lorenzo Musetti, Arthur Rinderknech, Jan-Lennard Struff, Sebastian Baez, Hugo Gaston, Emil Ruusuvuori, David Goffin, Roberto Carballes Baena, Kamil Majchrzak, Daniel Altmaier, Brandon Nakashima, Richard Gasquet, Facundo Bagnis, Alexei Popyrin, Marco Cecchinato, Francisco Cerundolo (all Phoenix)
  • Jiri Vesely, Gianluca Mager (Roseto Degli Abruzzi)

The Arizona Tennis Classic is the most stacked Challenger on the calendar with plenty of players who are already out of Indian Wells using it as a way to keep themselves in match rhythm for Miami. In the doubles draw, World No. 1 and World No. 2 Mate Pavic and Nikola Mektic are competing.

First-round matches to watch:

Phoenix

  • (WC) Brandon Nakashima vs (7) Emil Ruusuvuori
  • (3) Arthur Rinderknech vs Francisco Cerundolo
  • Alexei Popyrin vs (2) Lorenzo Musetti

Roseto Degli Abruzzi

  • (1) Jiri Vesely vs Nino Serdarusic
  • Gastao Elias vs (5) Bernabe Zapata Miralles
  • (3) Carlos Taberner vs Giulio Zeppieri

Concepcion

  • Pedro Cachin vs Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida
  • (7) Camilo Ugo Carabelli vs Gerald Melzer
  • Santiago Rodriguez Taverna vs (2) Juan Pablo Varillas

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