Francesco Passaro and Zsombor Piros were the maiden winners on the ATP Challenger Tour this week. Both players had competed in multiple finals at this level in the past, but finally got over the line. Meanwhile, Aleksandar Kovacevic almost joined the winners’ circle, but missed out on six championship points against Yibing Wu. Constant Lestienne and Roman Safiullin continued their great 2022 campaigns with Challenger titles. Read back on this week’s action:
Challenger Tour Weekly Recap
Francesco Passaro had already made three Challenger finals this year, losing to the top seed in every single one of them. The Italian made sure to eliminate the highest-ranked player in the tournament earlier this time, fending off Norbert Gombos in the quarterfinals. By demolishing last week’s Verona champion, Francesco Maestrelli, Passaro found himself in yet another Challenger final that would probably tell us whether he’s developing a bit of a mental block or not.
The incredibly brutal loss in Braunschweig clearly hasn’t derailed Zhizhen Zhang. The Chinese was still playing with as much confidence as in the aforementioned event and Luedenscheid, essentially ball-bashing and trying to finish the points as early as possible. He was the top seed in qualifying for Trieste and went on to almost crush all his opponents, losing just 25 games in the 12 sets he won. The only weaker moment came in the opening set against last week’s Iasi champion Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves, which he dropped 2-6.
This was the first time Passaro was favoured to win a Challenger final and that notion perhaps didn’t land with him too well. He was able to improve his level after the opening set though and it turned out that this was a pretty pleasant matchup for the Italian. The 21-year-old matched Zhang’s power, absorbed it well, and dictated with the forehand whenever possible. While the Chinese tried to find a solution in the middle of the decider, he ended up coming short.
Passaro claimed his maiden Challenger title 4-6 6-3 6-3. He will break the top 150 on Monday for the very first time. Zhang will now rest up for a week before playing in Cordenons, while the champion is scheduled to appear at San Benedetto del Tronto.
Zsombor Piros had reached two Challenger finals across the past eight months, but was still waiting for his first trophy. In the more recent one, he injured his back and was sidelined for a while in what’s definitely the best period of his career so far. A healthy Piros soon returned to the top of Challenger level, though his run in Tampere was far from easy. In the second round, he saved a matchpoint (forced error) to beat Luigi Sorrentino 3-6 7-6 (10) 6-2.
Also a former Australian Open boys’ singles champion (2020; Piros in 2017), Harold Mayot hadn’t been past the quarterfinals at a Challenger before. In fact, the Frenchman was just 1-6 in main draws at this level in 2022 coming into Tampere. It was quite the journey for Mayot this week as he found himself a set down to Lorenzo Bocchi in the qualifying draw, eventually eliminating the top seed Juan Manuel Cerundolo in the semifinals (admittedly, aided by a very timely rain delay).
Piros took the opening set 6-2 with his forehand firing, but put in a much messier performance as the match progressed. Some of that could have been related to a back injury, which he was treated for in the middle of the third set. The Hungarian held his nerve though and despite going down a break in the decider, managed to clinch his maiden Challenger title 6-2 1-6 6-4.
The 22-year-old will debut in the top 150 of the ATP Rankings on Monday. Due to his run in Tampere, he was forced to withdraw from Umag (ATP 250) qualifying. His upcoming schedule remains unknown. Mayot grabbed a special exempt spot into a Challenger in Zug.
Constant Lestienne has never had a season as consistent as this one, reaching his eighth Challenger quarterfinal, sixth semifinal, and third final of the season in Pozoblanco. The Frenchman is going towards a spot in the top 100 and he couldn’t have shown more deliberation than he did this week. In the first four matches, the 30-year-old dropped just nineteen games to make it to another championship match. Creativity and point construction were on full display, plus he’s never been this stable mentally.
Gregoire Barrere had a bit of a resurgence back in May, making the final in Aix-en-Provence and reaching the second round at Roland Garros. The Frenchman had descended into mediocrity since then though and it wasn’t until this week when he found some better rhythm again. He still didn’t really feel like a contender for the title until he eliminated Ugo Humbert 7-6 7-6 in the semifinals. Despite playing in Spain, four of his five rivals the whole week were his compatriots (Humbert, Dan Added, Maxime Janvier, and Lestienne).
Lestienne took an uncompetitive opening set 6-0, but Barrere was playing too well this week for this to end like that. The younger of the Frenchmen was timing his backhand beautifully and got himself to a serving for the set spot. Lestienne fought back and used his creativity to find ways to win the rallies.
Eventually, the 30-year-old won his fourth Challenger title. He now finds himself only nine points away from breaking the top 100 for the very first time. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Segovia next week.
After a phenomenal start to the season, the hype regarding Roman Safiullin died down a bit. The Russian hadn’t competed since Stuttgart qualifying and had a bit of a slow start in his first event in way over a month. He dropped a set to Seong Chan Hong in the opening round, but made use of the weaker draw in Nur-Sultan to play himself into form. In the semifinals, he was able to easily pressure Dmitry Popko and play efficient attacking tennis against the Kazakh’s excellent defense.
Awaiting him in the final would be another player of a similar mold, Denis Yevseyev. The 29-year-old had only reached one Challenger semifinal in his career (Da Nang 2019), being a high-level ITF Men’s Tennis Tour competitor for the past few years, but struggling to break through to the next level. He finally found a big Challenger run by winning three consecutive matches 6-4 in the third, before exacting revenge on Beibit Zhukayev, who eliminated him at a 25K in Nur-Sultan (same venue) the week before.
Safiullin’s attacking shot-making wasn’t as clean as in the semifinals though, allowing Yevseyev to take the opening set. The Kazakh also stood up to the power of his opponent quite well, helped by some good crowd support. While Safiullin steadied the ship, he would once again fall behind at 3-4 15-40 (on return) in the decider. A crucial net cord saved him that point and the game though. This was the turning moment as Yevseyev tightened up and didn’t really threaten the Russian again, even in the third set tie-breaker.
The 24-year-old won his second Challenger title (Cherbourg 2020) 2-6 6-4 7-6. On Monday, he will grab a career-high ranking of world #119. He will now rest up before traveling to the States to play Challengers in Lexington and Chicago. Meanwhile, Yevseyev received a special exempt into Zug.
The incredible run of Yibing Wu continues. By the time we reached the final in Indianapolis, his win/loss record for the season stood at 29-4, three of these losses coming via retirement. The Chinese won on slower indoor courts in Rome the week before and perhaps looked even better on the faster ones here. Despite going 3-5 down in the opener to Hady Habib and 2-5 down to Yasutaka Uchiyama, he was able to maintain his perfect set record over the fortnight.
It almost got to another Yibing Wu vs Ben Shelton final, but Aleksandar Kovacevic managed to stop the 19-year-old 6-4 7-5 in the semifinals (he also pushed him in Rome the week before). The former University of Illinois standout reached his maiden Challenger final after losing at the final four stage three times before. To get there, he had to eliminate some players with extremely unpleasant (to-face) playstyles – Stefan Kozlov and Dominik Koepfer.
Kovacevic took the lead after saving four set points in the opening tie-break. He was hitting his spots on serve extremely well and making Wu uncomfortable with the backhand slice. Despite going down 3-5 in the second, he generated his first championship point on return at 6-5 up. The Chinese stood strong though and saved five more in an absolutely crazy tie-breaker, levelling the match by taking it 15-13.
Two points in particular where Kovacevic could have done more – loose serve+1 forehand error and a passive second serve backhand return that went long. Both players were on their last legs in the decider with Wu eventually stepping up to take his third Challenger title of the year 6-7 7-6 6-3.
Almost exactly four months ago, the Chinese was ranked world #1869 in the ATP Rankings and had just one point. On Monday, he’ll break the top 175 with 300 more. Both finalists will grab some much-needed rest next week (Kovacevic withdrew from Winnipeg).
Events held next week:
- Finaport Zug Open (Challenger 125, clay)
- Open Castilla y Leon (Segovia, Challenger 90, hard)
- San Benedetto del Tronto Cup (Challenger 80, clay)
- Winnipeg National Bank Challenger Presented by M Builds (Challenger 80, hard)
Marc-Andrea Huesler will be the only top 100 player this week (Zug).
First-round matches to watch:
- Santiago Rodriguez Taverna vs Damir Dzumhur
- Alexander Ritschard vs (WC) Kilian Feldbausch
- Dennis Novak vs (2) Juan Manuel Cerundolo
Kilian Feldbausch is the junior world #7, who already won a round at the Biel Challenger earlier in the season (over Marc-Andrea Huesler).
- (4) Hugo Grenier vs (WC) Alejandro Moro Canas
- Paul Jubb vs Emilio Nava
- Antoine Escoffier vs (WC) Julio Cesar Porras
Last year, Julio Cesar Porras came completely out of nowhere to win a wildcard tournament and then beat Hiroki Moriya here, before going out to Feliciano Lopez in three sets. That was his first professional event. He’s played a bit on the ITF Tour since then but without much success. Can he repeat the magic here?
- Matteo Arnaldi vs (4) Nicolas Kicker
- Matteo Gigante vs (2) Luciano Darderi
- Enzo Couacaud vs (3) Vasek Pospisil
- Billy Harris vs (2) Emilio Gomez
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