Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Serve-and-Volley is Alive and Kicking

Daniel Elahi Galan, a champion on the Challenger Tour.
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Serve-and-volleying is a dying art but especially at the lower ranks, there are a few players who still try to make it their path to glory. One of them is 25-year-old Antoine Bellier who came out of basically nowhere (when it comes to the Challenger level) to win his maiden title at San Luis Potosi. Meanwhile, Elahi Galan is now 10-0 for the season on this circuit, clinching his 2nd trophy of the year in Sarasota. Here’s a look back on last week’s action:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Sarasota

Elahi Galan was playing in his second Challenger event of the season, having taken the title in Concepcion in January. The Colombian had lost a tight match to Sam Querrey at the ATP 250 in Houston the week before, but picked up his game in Sarasota. He eliminated the Australian duo of Max Purcell and Jason Kubler (the latter in three sets), before scoring a mightily impressive win over Alejandro Tabilo, who had been very dominant until that point of the tournament.

Steve Johnson played very well in Houston, coming up just short against John Isner in round two. In the previous match, he eliminated Denis Kudla, and as luck would have it, the two would be facing each other again in Sarasota semifinals. Johnson defeated his compatriot quite comfortably this time, but had to survive deciding sets against Mitchell Krueger and Yosuke Watanuki earlier in the week. For the 32-year-old, this was a first Challenger final since the pandemic.

Galan was the better player throughout set one, but as he couldn’t convert his break point opportunities, it went to a tiebreak. It was Johnson who cracked first under pressure, double-faulting at 7-8 down. The American was still keeping himself in the match though and by the middle of the second set, he hit a brilliant patch  where his forehand was just inescapable.

The Colombian landed a key break early on in the decider though and rode that wave all the way till the end, claiming his fourth Challenger title 7-6 4-6 6-1. Galan is now just 87 points away from debuting in the top 100 (his career-high ranking is 102). Both finalists will appear in Tallahassee this week.

Madrid

It’s unclear whether it was the win over Dominic Thiem in Marbella that breathed a new life into Pedro Cachin, but it cannot be argued that in the past three weeks, the Argentinian is playing possibly the best tennis of his entire career. After a final there and a quarterfinal in Murcia, the 27-year-old made his 2nd final this year in Madrid. In the quarterfinals, he eliminated this year’s Roseto Degli Abruzzi champion Manuel Guinard, only to score an even more impressive win over top-seeded Roberto Carballes Baena in the final four.

Marco Trungelliti struggled with an injury back in March, which led to the Madrid Challenger being just his fifth event of the season. The 32-year-old was demolished by Norbert Gombos in Murcia, but was much sharper this week. The Argentinian defeated last week’s Oeiras runner-up Alessandro Giannessi in the opening round, before bringing home a very hard-fought two-setter against Thiago Monteiro (saved two set points in the opener and three in set 2).

Despite a small dip at the end of the second set, Cachin was definitely the better player throughout the final. The Argentinian is hitting his forehand as aggressively (and cleanly) as ever right now. His serve has also become a weapon, which was evidenced by the 12 aces he sent past Trungelliti (85% 1st serve points won, broken just once).

Cachin took his 3rd Challenger title (Sevilla 2015, Oeiras 2021) 6-3 6-7 6-3, hitting a phenomenal tweener in the process (see the video in the tweet below). He decided to take some rest and withdrew from next week’s event in Split, while Trungelliti received a special exempt to the main draw of that tournament.

Barletta

Nuno Borges has been making deep runs at most Challengers he played this year, but a title had eluded him so far. The Portuguese was almost out of Barletta at the quarterfinal stage, down 1-6 5-6 30-40 to Luciano Darderi. He saved himself with a big serve+1 forehand to set up a sitter and went on to turn the match around. The 25-year-old was also pushed by Oleksandr Ovcharenko and Zdenek Kolar, ultimately finding a way to prevail after long opening sets capped off by tie-breaks.

It had been six years since Miljan Zekic last made it to a Challenger final and while Borges made one good comeback against Darderi, the 33-year-old was a true escape artist this week. The Serbian started from the qualifying and came back from 2-6 1-4 down to Andrea Arnaboldi in the first round of the main draw. His next opponent, Francesco Passaro, also led him by a set and a break (6-2 2-0) and eventually missed a match point in the 2nd set tie-break (brilliant one-two punch on return by Zekic). In the semifinals, Luca Nardi served for the match at 7-6 5-3, only to lose to the Serbian in three sets as well.

The final turned out to be a pretty even affair. Borges seemed to find an extra gear whenever there was more pressure involved, cleaning up his forehand on the breakpoints (7/8 saved). Zekic started what could possibly turn out to be another comeback from a set and a break down, but the Portuguese edged ahead again at 5-5 in the second and clinched his second Challenger title (first above the Challenger 50 level).

Borges makes it to a career-high of World No. 131. The 25-year-old will now rest up before appearing in the ATP 250 event at Estoril (unknown yet whether he will get a main draw wildcard or a qualifying one). Zekic took a special exempt spot in Split. Embedded in the tweet below you’ve got the video of the match point Borges saved against Darderi in the quarterfinals:

San Luis Potosi

Bellier saved three match points against Calvin Hemery in the first round of the qualifying, before embarking on a brilliant run. One of the few remaining serve-and-volleyers on the tour, the Swiss had never reached a Challenger semifinal before this week. The altitude in San Luis Potosi served (no pun intended) him well though as Bellier’s lefty serve stung like a bee in the quick conditions. The 25-year-old entered the week as the World No. 488 but earned himself a massive rise as he won five of his six matches before the final in deciding sets. Paradoxically, his only comfortable victory came against the top seed, Andrej Martin.

The much more experienced Renzo Olivo also won just one of his matches in straights, defeating Nicolas Jarry in the semifinals. The Argentinian hadn’t reached a Challenger final since Ostrava 2021, getting stopped a few times at the final four or last eight stage. Despite possessing completely different traits than most players you’d associate with altitude clay success, the 30-year-old was able to make the surface work for him, impressing particularly by how he was able to dismantle the big serves of Jarry and Ernesto Escobedo.

Bellier had some tough moments on serve early in the opener, but survived them all and found his way to a tie-breaker. Olivo played it rather safe in the key moments, which was a winning tactic as his baseline game is just so much better than what the Swiss can bring to the table. However, the 25-year-old shifted up a gear in terms of his serving and for the remainder of the match, only faced one break point.

After missing a few break points in the first four games of the deciding set, it would have been easy to expect Bellier to crumble under pressure in his first final. The Swiss stood strong though, despite being two points away from losing twice at 4-5 down. He broke in the next game with a beautiful chip-and-charge to serve out the match to 15.

To further showcase how insane this title run was:

  • The Swiss improves his career-high ranking by 135 spots to 310
  • 6 of his 7 matches went three sets
  • He was the underdog in every single match played in San Luis Potosi
  • He only had one Challenger quarterfinal before, Bangalore 2022

Olivo will now rest up before competing in Buenos Aires in a week. Meanwhile, Bellier received a special exempt for Aguascalientes, another Mexican Challenger on altitude clay.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • TK Sparta Prague Open (Challenger 80, clay)
  • Split Open (Challenger 80, clay)
  • Tallahassee Tennis Challenger (Challenger 80, green clay)
  • San Marcos Open Aguascalientes (Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Daniel Altmaier (Prague)
  • Tomas Martin Etcheverry, Steve Johnson (Tallahassee)

First-round matches to watch:

Prague

  • Dalibor Svrcina vs Dmitry Popko
  • Maximilian Marterer vs (2) Mats Moraing

Split

  • (1) Zdenek Kolar vs Duje Ajdukovic
  • (WC) Dino Prizmic vs Andrea Arnaboldi
  • Riccardo Bonadio vs (4) Altug Celikbilek

Tallahassee

  • Michael Mmoh vs Sumit Nagal
  • (3) Daniel Elahi Galan vs Andrea Collarini

Aguascalientes

  • (ALT) Bernard Tomic vs (WC) Juncheng Shang
  • Gerald Melzer vs (4) Ernesto Escobedo

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images