Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Stricker Back on the Right Track?

Dominic Stricker, a Challenger Tour champion in Zug.
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Four ATP Challenger Tour events were held this week with exciting action across Canada, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Constant Lestienne almost went back-to-back in Pozoblanco/Segovia, losing on the final hurdle to Hugo Grenier. Dominic Stricker and Emilio Gomez also claimed titles and could be eyeing their top 100 debuts sometime soon. Meanwhile, Raul Brancaccio took his maiden title at this level in San Benedetto del Tronto. Read back on this week’s action:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Zug

Ernests Gulbis had only reached the quarterfinal stage in two events he played since the pandemic (Biella 2021, Cherbourg 2022) before coming to Zug. The Latvian spent most of this year’s campaign playing Challenger qualifying and not even with a good success rate (4/12). But after a tough battle against Yshai Olliel, where he dropped a bagel opening set in 26 minutes, something clicked. Aided by the altitude conditions, the former World No. 10 emerged on a stunning run, highlighted by wins over the likes of Dennis Novak and Dimitar Kuzmanov.

Dominic Stricker looked on the rise in the back-to-back finals against Yoshihito Nishioka earlier in the year (Columbus and Cleveland). However, the young prospect completely lost his consistency of results and had only been past the second round once (Biel semifinals). Faster clay is very much to his liking though and he showed that again this week. The Swiss was in particularly destructive form on Saturday, when he had to play both his quarterfinal against Alexander Ritschard and semifinal against Geoffrey Blancaneaux.

Gulbis saved eight break points during a mammoth 16-minute opening game and proceeded to look extremely strong on serve in the rest of the opener. Stricker finally broke at 1-1 in the second with a forehand return winner though and it proved to be a huge turning point. The Latvian basically tanked the rest of the set and while had four break points to take the lead in the decider, his baseline game really wasn’t that threatening anymore.

Stricker took his third Challenger title 5-7 6-1 6-3 and will find himself 96 points away from the top 100 on Monday. The Swiss is planning to rest up a week before heading over to the States to play in Chicago. Meanwhile, Gulbis received a special exempt spot for Cordenons.

Segovia

Constant Lestienne secured himself a top 100 debut with his run here and while it seemed like at some point the fatigue would get him, the Frenchman kept fighting through these issues and got a chance to go back-to-back after his title in Pozoblanco. The semifinal against Michael Geerts was crazy in particular with the Belgian up a break in the second and third sets. Lestienne lightly sprained his ankle, but was still breaking back (including to stay in the match) and took it in the third set tie-breaker.

Hugo Grenier made the semifinals in Segovia for a third straight edition, but this managed to secure his spot in the championship match. The Frenchman had a nasty opening draw against Alejandro Moro Canas, but coming through in straights made him a very tough customer this week. He was 6-7 2-4 down to Ugo Humbert in the final four, but his combination of a big serve and making a lot of balls eventually drew his compatriot crazy. Interestingly, Lestienne vs Grenier was a Challenger final in Alicante last year, also hard courts in Spain.

Lestienne went up 5-3 and despite falling into a 0-40 hole in that game, he even found a set point. Grenier approached to his forehand though and forced the error. Soon enough, the energy issues started showing up more and more. The 30-year-old usually enjoys this matchup, having plenty of time to play his game from the baseline. But he just wasn’t ready for this physically and Grenier was inching closer to victory.

The younger of the Frenchmen won his 2nd Challenger title 7-5 6-3. He now finds himself just 67 points away from the top 100, a milestone that Lestienne has reached with his run this week. Both finalists decided to withdraw from their events next week – Grenier from Cordenons, while the runner-up was supposed to go to the States and play in Lexington.

San Benedetto

A number of NextGen Italians have improved a lot recently, but so did 25yo Raul Brancaccio, who had recently made his first Challenger semifinal in Troyes. Starting from the qualifying draw in San Benedetto, he had three straight matches where lost just two games each, including against dangerous opponents like Francesco Maestrelli and Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida. The key moment of Brancaccio’s run came in the quarterfinals as he dispatched Matteo Arnaldi 7-5 in the third.

Andrea Vavassori almost gave up on his singles career in the spring of last year, but started playing regularly again in August. It turned out that he not only had a lot more still to show, but he would also suddenly start improving on all his previous results and records. The natural next step was his maiden Challenger final as the Italian had lost in the semifinals on four prior opportunities. After defeating last week’s Trieste champion, Francesco Passaro, in round two, Vavassori made sure to score a new milestone for himself this time around.

Brancaccio kept the frequent net player behind the baseline with good power and depth from the get-go. His forehand also took on Vavassori’s slice really well. While the older Italian took a medical time out after dropping the opening set, it didn’t feel like the possible health issues impacted the result much. Brancaccio just really put in a stellar performance to clinch his maiden Challenger title.

The 25-year-old won the championship match 6-1 6-1. Both finalists are now nearing the top 200 for the very first time. Brancaccio got a special exempt for Cordenons, while Vavassori made it in as an alternate.

Winnipeg

Emilio Gomez finished runner-up in Malaga at the beginning of the month and while his first tournament in the North American swing didn’t go well (he lost in the first round in Rome), the Ecuadorian was back in strong form in Winnipeg. In fact, the 30-year-old didn’t drop more than four games in a set along the way to the championship match. He survived a tricky opening round against Billy Harris, who also managed to break him twice as opposed to just one time the other three Gomez opponents did it.

Alexis Galarneau had to save two match points against Ulises Blanch in the opening round (the American committed unforced errors on both). The 23-year-old had only reached one previous Challenger semifinal but managed to secure another chance with a crazy win over the top seed, Liam Broady. Stumbling across the finish line on multiple occasions, Galarneau ended up cramping and being forced to go for his shots and try to finish the points early. It eventually paid off and he took out Evan Zhu in the semifinals to make his maiden final at this level.

All the previous efforts took a lot from Galarneau and you could see that in the final. Gomez played his usual offensive tennis with very steady pace and the Canadian just couldn’t quite handle it. At 3-6 0-3 he took a long medical timeout that allowed him to stay much more competitive as the match went on. Gomez faltered with two double faults when serving for the match and eventually run into serious complications trying to close out the second set.

Gomez took his 4th Challenger title 6-3 7-6. The Ecuadorian will play in Lexington next week and with a title, he could even debut in the top 100 (currently 70 points away). Galarneau had to withdraw from Washington qualifying due to his extended stay at Winnipeg.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Serena Wines Tennis Cup 1881 (Cordenons, Challenger 80, clay)
  • Svijany Open (Liberec, Challenger 80, clay)
  • Lexington Challenger presented by Meridian Wealth Management (Challenger 80, hard)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Laslo Djere (Cordenons)
  • Jiri Lehecka (Liberec)

First-round matches to watch:

Cordenons

  • (4) Pavel Kotov vs Zhizhen Zhang
  • Giulio Zeppieri vs (3) Camilo Ugo Carabelli
  • (5) Flavio Cobolli vs Matteo Arnaldi

Liberec

  • (1) Jiri Lehecka vs Nicola Kuhn
  • Sebastian Ofner vs (4) Tomas Machac
  • Timofey Skatov vs (2) Nuno Borges

Tomas Machac hasn’t played since giving a walkover in the semifinals of the Prague Challenger, over three months ago.

Lexington

  • Aidan McHugh vs Billy Harris
  • Zachary Svajda vs (7/WC) Aleksandar Kovacevic
  • (8) Enzo Couacaud vs (WC) Evan Zhu

Main photo:
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