Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Shelton and Virtanen Win Long-Awaited Maiden Titles

Daniel Altmaier won a Challenger Tour title this week.

Ben Shelton and Otto Virtanen were among the winners of the five ATP Challenger Tour events this past week, claiming titles and fulfilling the high expectations around them. Yu-Hsiou Hsu was a much more surprising maiden champion in Sydney. Meanwhile, Daniel Altmaier went back-to-back in South America, while Christopher O’Connell ended up winning in Yokohama. Here’s a look back at this week’s action:

Bergamo

When Jan-Lennard Struff dominated the field at the Braunschweig Challenger in July, it seemed like he would be back to the top 100 in no time. It hasn’t materialized though and the German’s results have been very inconsistent. He came up with a nice run in Bergamo, beating some of the most talented young Italians in three consecutive rounds – Flavio Cobolli, Luca Nardi, and Matteo Arnaldi. The last player from that list and Jurij Rodionov forced him to deciding sets on the way to the final.

It’s been a breakout season for Virtanen, who made his third Challenger semifinal. All in 2022, each on a different surface (grass in Surbiton, clay in Liberec, indoor hard in Bergamo).  The 21-year-old would often lack mental composure in recent weeks, but it was not a problem here at all. Starting from the qualifying draw, he took six consecutive matches in straight sets to make the final, claiming all four tiebreakers played.

The final certainly wasn’t Struff’s best performance of the week, but Virtanen showed a lot of regulation and control over his game. He kept finding huge serves break point down and was excellent on return, putting the German in trouble on many occasions. While he did have a weaker game trying to serve it out, he didn’t make the same mistake the second time of asking.

Virtanen claimed his maiden Challenger title 6-2 7-5 and will break the top 200 on Monday. Both finalists are scheduled to feature in events at this level this week – the champion in Roanne, Struff in Bratislava.

Charlottesville

Christopher Eubanks returned to the United States after a pretty decent South Korean swing (one semifinal, one quarterfinal). The 26-year-old survived a crazy match against Juncheng Shang in the last eight here, saving six match points. First, he fought back from 3-5 15-40 on return in the deciding set (saved three there) and then from 1-5 and 4-6 down in the tiebreaker. Eubanks then made his first final of the year by beating Emilio Nava in three sets.

Shelton earned his fourth shot at a Challenger title, having lost three previous finals this summer (to Yibing Wu, Roman Safiullin, and Zachary Svajda). The 20-year-old won his first three matches in Charlottesville in straight sets, before getting engaged in a nerve-wracking battle against Paul Jubb. The Brit even briefly went up 4-2 in the third as Shelton had to pull off a truly gutsy win. He’s friends with his final opponent off-court and even played doubles with him this week.

Eubanks got up to 5-3 in the opening set, but let Shelton back into it with a couple of loose forehand errors. The pattern of a lefty serve going against a one-handed backhand return was a big deal, even if for large portions of the match you didn’t really feel it. The youngster completely dominated the tiebreak with it though and won a number of phenomenal rallies to land the crucial break at 5-5 in the second.

Shelton claimed his maiden Challenger title 7-6 7-5, breaking the top 150. Both finalists are now among the favorites to claim the win in the USTA’s Australian Open Wildcard Challenge and they’re also scheduled to appear in Knoxville this week.

Guayaquil

After struggling most of the summer, Federico Coria upped his game in the South American swing, reaching his fourth consecutive quarterfinal in Guayaquil. The route wasn’t easy as the Argentinian took out Facundo Diaz Acosta and Juan Pablo Varillas in deciding set tiebreaks. In both encounters, he served for the match and missed at least one match point at 5-4 in the third, before eventually securing the win a few games later.

Altmaier was coming off a title in Lima and struggled a fair bit in his opening match against Thiago Seyboth Wild, going down 1-6 6-6. He won the tiebreak and then the match, which turned out to be crucial as he landed another big run. The 24-year-old beat Jesper de Jong in three sets in the quarterfinals, before scoring a quality win over Marco Cecchinato. The final saw him play Federico Coria again, after beating him in the final four in Lima.

Altmaier was out of the gates quickly and started dominating the match against a slightly tired Coria. The Argentinian was unable to give his best and required treatment on his thigh. Knowing that his opponent was struggling actually made things harder for Altmaier, who struggled quite a bit to get over the finish line.

But the 24-year-old eventually claimed his sixth Challenger title with a 6-2 6-4 win. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Montevideo this week.

Yokohama

Yosuke Watanuki hadn’t made a Challenger final since February 2020, but was usually faring very well in these events at home, especially in Kobe. The 24-year-old hadn’t competed in a month after retiring to Jaume Munar in the first round in Seoul (ATP 250). Watanuki beat three of his countrymen to get to the semifinals here, coming back from a set down to beat Tatsuma Ito (via retirement) and clinching the win 6-3 in the third over Kaichi Uchida.

Top-seeded Christopher O’Connell ended his South Korean swing on a high note (quarterfinal in Seoul, semifinal in Busan) and chose not to play at home in Australia, but remain in Asia. The 28-year-old had a fairly smooth path to the final, outside of one match against Tung-Lin Wu at the last eight stage. O’Connell had to save a match point on serve at 6-7 5-6 down, before eventually coming out on top 6-4 in the decider.

O’Connell dominated the opening set and broke in the first game of the second. However, Watanuki would soon start playing with more guts, taking the ball early and blasting returns with relentless aggression. He managed to take the match to a decider, but just couldn’t quite maintain that intensity.

The Australian claimed his fourth Challenger title (second this year) 6-1 6-7 6-3, basically securing a top 100 finish and a main draw spot in Melbourne without needing a wildcard. Both finalists are signed up for all the other upcoming events in Japan.

Sydney

Marc Polmans was injured for over six months this season, coming back for the US Open qualifying. Since then, he fared well in the South Korean Challenger swing, grabbing a semifinal and quarterfinal appearance. Not many players were willing to travel to Australia for the two events there and Polmans enjoyed a rather straightforward draw in Sydney, not having to face a single top 350 player on the way to the final. He dropped one set along the way (to Yuta Shimizu).

Hsu made just his second Challenger quarterfinal in Playford the week before, losing in three sets to Max Purcell. The Taiwanese once again had to battle the same opponent in Sydney, although this time a round later. The 23-year-old dropped just 17 games in the four matches he needed to win to make his maiden ATP final, including only five against Purcell. He wasn’t even broken on the way to the championship match, saving all seven break points.

Hsu dominated the final as well, up until letting the nerves get to him at 6-4 2-0. He was then broken twice to allow Purcell to serve to level the match, but the Taiwanese played some brilliant tennis in that game, not letting go of the baseline and finding some very sharp ball-striking.

He would then go on to clinch the match in the tiebreak 6-4 7-6. It takes him up to a ranking spot that could guarantee a spot in Australian Open qualifying, although it’s not secured yet. Both finalists will appear in the Japanese Challenger swing next with Hsu taking a special exempt into Matsuyama, while Polmans will skip next week.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held next week:

  • Open de Roanne Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes (Challenger 100, indoor hard)
  • Peugeot Slovak Open (Bratislava, Challenger 90, indoor hard)
  • Calgary National Bank Challenger (Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Knoxville Challenger (Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Matsuyama Challenger (Challenger 80, hard)
  • Uruguay Open (Montevideo, Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Radu Albot, Hugo Gaston, Pavel Kotov (Roanne)
  • Zhizhen Zhang (Bratislava)
  • Christopher O’Connell (Matsuyama)
  • Federico Coria, Tomas Martin Etcheverry, Daniel Altmaier (Guayaquil)

First-round matches to watch:

Roanne

  •  (4) Jason Kubler vs Luca van Assche
  • (WC) Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard vs (8) Fernando Verdasco
  • Alexander Ritschard vs (3) Pavel Kotov

Bratislava

  • Alexander Shevchenko vs (5) Tim van Rijthoven
  • (7) Jelle Sels vs Maximilian Marterer

Calgary

  • (1) Emilio Gomez vs Harold Mayot
  • Justin Boulais (WC) vs (6) Antoine Escoffier

Knoxville

  • Tennys Sandgren vs (5) Emilio Nava
  • Lucas Gerch vs (8) Juncheng Shang
  • (6) Aleksandar Kovacevic vs (ALT) Ethan Quinn

Matsuyama

  • Dane Sweeny vs (5) Benoit Paire
  • Nino Serdarusic vs (2) Rinky Hijikata

Montevideo

  • Marco Trungelliti vs (5) Marco Cecchinato
  • Andrea Collarini vs (8) Franco Agamenone
  • (7) Juan Manuel Cerundolo vs (WC) Guido Pella

Former world #20 Guido Pella made his return to action after twelve months out having suffered a knee injury at the end of 2021, but was beaten in straight sets by Cerundolo in the first round.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images