Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Gojo and Hijikata Join the Winners’ Circle

Borna Gojo Croatia

Two players claimed their maiden Challenger titles this week – Borna Gojo and Rinky Hijikata. Meanwhile, Gregoire Barrere proved his amazing form by winning in Brest. Daniel Altmaier was a surprise champion given his recent form, while Tennys Sandgren came out of nowhere after struggling the whole season. Read back on this week’s action:

Brest

18-year-old Luca van Assche managed to give himself another shot at a Challenger title after finishing runner-up to Marco Cecchinato in Lisbon. This time on a very different surface, the 2021 Roland Garros boys’ singles champion pulled off an impressive campaign, only dropping one set on the way to the final (to Nuno Borges). For someone with a very vulnerable serve, van Assche did extremely well to drop it just once against each of his opponents.

Gregoire Barrere has found some great form in recent weeks, making four Challenger quarterfinals (at least) in a row. By making the final in Brest, he was able to secure his return to the top 100 for the first time since September 2020. The 28-year-old went 0-3 down in the deciding set to Dimitar Kuzmanov in the opening round, but managed to come out on top. He would then go on to score much cleaner wins over Beibit Zhukayev and Matthias Bourgue.

When hitting well, Barrere has a very good matchup against van Assche, which he also showed earlier that month in Saint Tropez. To respond to his pace, the 18-year-old has to sacrifice some of the control over his groundstrokes and trying to look for some more aggressive plays. Thar raises the error count though and handling someone like his compatriot on fast indoor court is a bit of a nightmare for him.

Barrere took the final 6-3 6-3 to return to the top 100 after 25 months. It’s his 5th Challenger title and the 2nd this year. Van Assche chose to withdraw from Bergamo next week, while the champion still intends to appear in that tournament.

Ortisei

A champion in Alicante at the beginning of the month, Lukas Klein wasn’t slowing down as his hyper-aggressive playstyle certainly enjoyed the lightning-fast courts in Ortisei. The Slovak dropped his serve just twice on the way to the final. Mirza Basic still wasn’t able to take him to a tie-break, but Luca Nardi made the most out of that one slip from Klein, eventually losing 1-6 6-3 1-6. The 24-year-old made his third Challenger final of the season.

Borna Gojo was even more dominant on his own delivery on the way to the final, facing just six break points in four matches (five against Yannick Hanfmann, one versus Giulio Zeppieri). Only one of the eight sets he played went to a tie-breaker. Despite being fairly deep inside the top 200, Gojo was still seeking his first professional title at any level, finishing runner-up at a couple of ITF events in 2016/2017, plus to Chun-Hsin Tseng in a Challenger final at Bengaluru earlier in 2022.

The first set went to a tie-break and was decided by a crucial net cord winner from Gojo at 5-4, but there’s little point arguing that the Croat wasn’t the better player anyway. Klein found himself in trouble on serve a few times with his uneven execution at the net, while Gojo wasn’t even taken to deuce and rushed the Slovak’s groundstrokes whenever possible.

Gojo grabbed his first professional title at any level 7-6 6-3, breaking the top 150. Klein achieved the very same feat with his runner-up points. The Slovak will now rest up before the Bratislava Challenger, while the Ortisei champion took a special exempt spot into the main draw in Bergamo.

Lima

Tomas Martin Etcheverry lost in the quarterfinals in Coquimbo to the eventual champion, Juan-Manuel Cerundolo. It felt like it was a bit of a virtual final and the Argentinian was sort of able to prove it this week, playing some stunning tennis on the way to his fourth Challenger championship match of the season. Genaro Alberto Oliveri and Roman Andres Burruchaga took him to deciding sets, but he was always in control in each of them.

Daniel Altmaier was having an awful South American swing, winning just one match in three previous events. It took some extremely hard-fought victories for the German to play himself into form in Lima. He was 5-7 1-4 down to Nicolas Kicker in the opening round, before coming back from a 3-6 2-4 deficit against Santiago Rodriguez Taverna in the quarterfinals. His cleanest match of the week was a very comfortable victory over top-seeded Federico Coria in the final four.

The German was the better player throughout the match, easily cleaning up the opening set. Etcheverry’s resilience was admirable though as he just wouldn’t go away and eventually forced it into a decider. But still hitting with a lot more confidence and quality off the ground, the 24-year-old was eventually able to land a key break at 5-4 in the 3rd set.

Altmaier claimed his 5th Challenger title (2nd this year) 6-1 6-7 6-4. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Guayaquil next week.

Las Vegas

Down to World No. 444, Tennys Sandgren had only reached two Challenger quarterfinals this season, although one of them very recently in Fairfield. The 31-year-old qualified for Las Vegas and went 3-6 0-2 down to Sebastian Fanselow in the opening round of the main draw. From that point onwards, we saw a different version of Sandgren though, much more comparable to the tennis player he was in his prime. In the quarterfinals, he came back from a set down to beat Brandon Holt.

It’s been a disastrous season for Stefan Kozlov, who found himself at a 14-30 win/loss record coming into this week. In fact, across twelve Challenger appearances, he never went past the second round. Kozlov played some of his best tennis of the campaign to dispatch players like Cannon Kingsley and Alexis Galarneau in deciding sets, before saving one of the most incredible match points ever to defeat Steve Johnson in the final four (see video below:).

Kozlov went up 5-4 40-0 on serve in the opening set, proving to be an extremely challenging matchup for Sandgren (the head-to-head stood at 5-1 before the match). The 24-year-old made a couple of loose forehand errors though and let his opponent claw his way back into the set. Sandgren saved five set points and was much more patient from that point onwards, finding the right opportunities to pull the trigger.

The 31-year-old won his 4th Challenger title and climbed 158 ranking spots to get back into the top 300. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Charlottesville with Sandgren taking a special exempt into the main draw.

Playford

Rinky Hijikata had lost a couple of Challenger semifinals earlier this year, but was still waiting for his first big breakthrough on this circuit. The 21-year-old started with a very clean victory over one of Australia’s brightest youngsters in Philip Sekulic, before coming up against James Duckworth in a highly-anticipated quarterfinal. Hijikata found a completely new gear after dropping the opening set and kept that up as he demolished Max Purcell in the semifinals.

Rio Noguchi went 28-2 in his last 30 matches on the ITF Tour (four 25K titles!), before winning a match in the main draw of the ATP 500 event in Tokyo. The Japanese hadn’t played a Challenger since April, losing in the qualifying of all eight previous events he played at that level in 2022. A run of form like that can really take your game to a whole new level and Noguchi beat four consecutive Australians, including top-seeded Jordan Thompson, to make his first Challenger final.

Hijikata’s brilliant display of form continued into the final as he saved a break point at 1-1, before completely taking control over the match. He kept hitting his short attacking combinations and played with a lot of pace while limiting the errors. The backhand down-the-line was very smooth both in offense and defense, plus the slice bailed him out of trouble when needed. Despite a few short delays to wipe the court due to small rain, the dynamics of the final never changed.

The 21-year-old claimed his maiden Challenger title 6-1 6-1 and will be nearing the top 150 on Monday. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Sydney next week.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Trofeo Perrel-Faip (Bergamo, Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Jonathan Fried Pro Challenger (Charlottesville, Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Challenger Ciudad de Guayaquil (Challenger 80, clay)
  • NSW Open (Sydney, Challenger 80, hard)
  • Yokohama Keio Challenger (Challenger 80, hard)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Kamil Majchrzak, Nuno Borges, Zhizhen Zhang, Gregoire Barrere (all Bergamo)
  • Federico Coria, Tomas Martin Etcheverry, Daniel Altmaier (Guayaquil)
  • Christopher O’Connell (Yokohama)

First-round matches to watch:

Bergamo

  • (1) Kamil Majchrzak vs Alexander Shevchenko
  • (WC) Luca Nardi vs (6) Tomas Machac
  • (4) Gregoire Barrere vs Matteo Arnaldi
  • (5/WC) Tim van Rijthoven vs Dominic Stricker
  • (WC) Giulio Zeppieri vs (3) Zhizhen Zhang

Charlottesville

  • (4) Christopher Eubanks vs Nicolas Alvarez Varona
  • Brandon Holt vs (SE) Tennys Sandgren
  • Mitchell Krueger vs (3) Stefan Kozlov
  • Ernesto Escobedo vs (2) Michael Mmoh

Guayaquil

  • (1) Federico Coria vs Francisco Comesana
  • (5) Juan Manuel Cerundolo vs Gerald Melzer
  • Nicolas Kicker vs (7) Santiago fa Rodriguez Taverna

Sydney

  • (WC) Alex Bolt vs (6) Dane Sweeny
  • (7) Rio Noguchi vs Philip Sekulic
  • (ALT) Colin Sinclair vs (3) Aleksandar Vukic

Yokohama

  • (1) Christopher O’Connell vs Ramkumar Ramanathan
  • (PR) Yuichi Sugita vs (5) Tung-Lin Wu

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