Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Two Chinese Champions Zhizhen Zhang and Juncheng Shang

Juncheng Shang Wimbledon
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It’s a very famous fact that China has never had a male top 100 player. Things are definitely looking up right now though with three Chinese champions at the Challenger level in the past three weeks. Zhizhen Zhang capitalized on a phenomenal month he’s had with a title at Cordenons, while the former junior World No. 1 Juncheng Shang shocked everyone and claimed the title at Lexington. Meanwhile in Liberec, Jiri Lehecka won his 3rd ATP Challenger Tour crown. Read back on this week’s action:

Liberec

It was already Jiri Lehecka‘s ninth Challenger appearance of the season but surprisingly, the young Czech was yet to raise a title. He made a final in Mauthausen, but ended up losing to Jurij Rodionov. On his path to the final here, the 20-year-old had challenging encounters with Sumit Nagal (who could have beaten him if not for a weak performance on serve) and Giovanni Mpetschi Perricard, who went toe to toe with the top seed until he double-faulted at 5-5 in the deciding set tie-breaker.

Nicolas Alvarez Varona was struggling mightily in his first full year as a Challenger player. The Spaniard made the final at Rio de Janeiro at the end of 2021 and was expected to be a bit more of a force on this circuit by now. Liberec was just the second time this year he won consecutive matches (ATP 500 Barcelona qualifying). The key win and his best performance was straight-setting Nuno Borges in the quarterfinals with the Portuguese trying to lock up a top 100 debut.

Lehecka’s often his worst enemy, but his game is really explosive and it proved too much for Alvarez Varona in the final. While the execution on the volleys can often lack, he’s got a lot of good forward instincts and managed to overwhelm his opponent in the rallies. Lehecka claimed his 3rd Challenger title 6-4 6-4. Both finalists are scheduled to take a week off before appearing at Grodzisk Mazowiecki.

Cordenons

Having made his maiden Challenger final at San Benedetto the week before, Andrea Vavassori went straight to Cordenons and earned himself another chance at a title at this level. While on faster surfaces he can play a serve-and-volley style, the Italian kept proving all week that he’s got many potential gameplans. In tough situations against Mattia Bellucci and Nicolas Moreno de Alboran, he showed his ability to understand when to stay behind and try to lure out errors from a potentially nervous opponent.

Zhizhen Zhang has been absolutely amazing in his past four events, making three Challenger finals and not losing before the semifinal stage. The Chinese is playing with amazing belief in his game right now and it shows on the court as he’s able to rip the ball down-the-line with incredible ease. His Cordenons run wasn’t so clean though as Zhang was a bit off his game in the matches against Nikola Milojevic and Andrey Chepelev, but still found ways to push through.

Vavassori’s slice and the ability to mix things up caused Zhang plenty of trouble. The Chinese was again not really playing at the level he’s gotten us used to over the past month, but he steadied his game enough to come out the victor in the deciding set. Zhang claimed his 3rd Challenger title 2-6 7-6 6-3 and is now nearing the top 150, despite only catching fire at the end of June. His next tournament is supposed to be Grodzisk Mazowiecki in a week’s time, while Vavassori is taking a prolonged rest until the US Open qualifying.

Lexington

Former junior World No. 1 and 2021 US Open boys’ singles runner-up, Juncheng Shang, played Challengers mostly all year but never progressed past the second round. This changed in Lexington as he was able to score amazing wins over Roman Safiullin and Aleksandar Kovacevic. Sadly, fans around the world couldn’t see them as the two matches were moved indoors and had no streaming available. This was also Shang’s first week working with the legend Marcelo Rios, who came to Lexington for the semifinals and will soon decide whether he wants to work with the Chinese long-term.

Emilio Gomez won the Winnipeg Challenger the week before, but didn’t show any signs of weariness as he progressed through the draw. The run was more complicated than the previous one though. In the opening round, the Ecuadorian managed to get the better of Cannon Kingsley 7-5 in the deciding set, before running into more trouble facing Enzo Couacaud in the semifinals. The two had played at the same tournament stage in Winnipeg, but this time Gomez lost a set and only took it in the deciding tie-break.

While Shang’s physicality and the ability to construct points and use his big forehand more smartly is still suspect, the Chinese is just oozing natural talent (sort of like his new coach, who had amazing hand skills). The 17-year-old showed he’s growing as a match player and found a 6-4 6-4 win over Gomez, taking a long last game that felt like it could have been the turning point had the Ecuadorian won it.

Gomez is still in the draw for the Chicago Challenger, but got a very tough opener against the recent Indianapolis runner-up, Aleksandar Kovacevic. Meanwhile, Shang will rest up for a week before likely appearing in Vancouver (currently on the alternate list for the qualifying, but he’ll probably make it).

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • San Marino Tennis Open (Challenger 90, clay)
  • Rhein Asset Open (Meerbusch, Challenger 80, clay)
  • Chicago Men’s Challenger (Challenger 80, hard)
  • Directv Open Lima (Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Bernabe Zapata Miralles (Meerbusch)
  • Tomas Martin Etcheverry, Juan Pablo Varillas (Lima)

First-round matches to watch:

San Marino

  • (4/WC) Flavio Cobolli vs Fabian Marozsan
  • (5) Marco Cecchinato vs (WC) Mattia Bellucci

Meerbusch

  • (WC) Rudolf Molleker vs (3) Jan-Lennard Struff
  • Riccardo Bonadio vs (2) Franco Agamenone

Chicago

  • (1) Henri Laaksonen vs Borna Gojo
  • (3) Stefan Kozlov vs Ernesto Escobedo
  • (6) Emilio Gomez vs (WC) Aleksandar Kovacevic
  • Paul Jubb vs Jordan Thompson

Lima

  • Daniel Dutra da Silva vs (6) Renzo Olivo
  • (3) Camilo Ugo Carabelli vs Nicolas Mejia

 

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