Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Shelton Goes Back-to-Back, Gaston’s First Title

Ben Shelton made it two Challenger Tour titles in as many weeks.

It was an extremely loaded week of action on the ATP Challenger Tour. For the second time this season, we got to see a total of six events. Hugo Gaston, Seong-Chan Hong, and Genaro Alberto Olivieri claimed their maiden titles, while Ben Shelton defeated Christopher Eubanks in a repeat of their final from last week. Meanwhile, Marton Fucsovics and Dominik Koepfer are returning to form after pretty rough 2022 campaigns. Here’s a look back at last week’s action:

Challenger Tour Weekly Recap

Roanne

Henri Laaksonen infamously retired match point down against Alexander Ritschard in the final in Hamburg a couple of weeks back. Roanne was his first event since. This run kicked off with a hard-fought win against Antoine Bellier (3-6 7-5 7-5). Laaksonen was also in trouble in the second round, coming back from a set down to Fernando Verdasco, who eventually retired at the beginning of the decider. The Swiss survived and played himself into form as the week went on.

Gaston had made the semifinals in his previous three Challenger appearances. The Frenchman got to that stage again, beating Valentin Royer and Nikoloz Basilashvili despite dropping the opening set against both. By the way, for the latter, it was the first appearance in an event at this level since April 2018.  In the final four, Gaston stopped the winning streak of last week’s Bergamo champion, Otto Virtanen 7-5 7-5.

Gaston’s 0-4 record in Challenger finals was definitely messing with his head as the Frenchman choked the opening set away (served for it at 5-4, then had two set points at 6-4 in the tie-break). Laaksonen has had a rough year though and wasn’t fully ready to win the title either. From 7-6 4-2 up, the Swiss’ forehand broke down completely and he wasn’t able to hit through Gaston’s defenses anymore.

The 22-year-old claimed his maiden Challenger title 6-7 7-5 6-1, recovering from his mental issues much better than Laaksonen. He now has a very serious chance of making the Australian Open main draw. Both finalists are scheduled to play in Helsinki this week.

Bratislava

Fabian Marozsan plays a heavily clay-oriented schedule, but did extremely well this week in conditions that aren’t so comfortable for him. The Hungarian survived three deciding sets on the way to the final as he navigated his way through a very tough draw. In the third sets against Jan-Lennard Struff, Norbert Gombos, and Cem Ilkel, Marozsan was up on the scoreboard early and never let go. The 23-year-old made his 2nd Challenger final this year (won Banja Luka).

It was just the 2nd Challenger event of the season for Marton Fucsovics, who fell out of the top 100 mostly due to not being able to defend his Wimbledon quarterfinal points. After a rough opening set against Lukas Pokorny, the 30-year-old caught some confidence and started playing incredibly relaxed as he was free-flowing past Yannick Hanfmann and Maximilian Marterer. By beating Tomas Machac in the semifinals, he secured a first-ever all-Hungarian Challenger final with his compatriot.

While Marozsan eventually created one opportunity on Fucsovics’ serve and started playing better deep into the 2nd set, the final was a pretty comfortable affair for the more experienced Hungarian. He perhaps wasn’t flying quite as high as a few times during the week, but it was way more than enough. Fucsovics won his fifth Challenger title (first since 2017) 6-2 6-4 and will return to the top 100 on Monday. He was scheduled to appear in Helsinki but withdrew, while Marozsan has ended his season.

Knoxville

Coming straight off a title in Charlottesville, things weren’t getting easier for Shelton. In his opening round, he saved four key break points at 4-6 4-4 down to Keegan Smith, before pulling off a comeback. The 20-year-old sensation then picked his game up again by dispatching Mitchell Krueger and Aleksandar Kovacevic, but had to grind hard to get into his second consecutive final. Enzo Couacaud even briefly led him 7-6 3-1 in the final four.

It was a rematch of the Charlottesville final as Eubanks also locked up a place in the championship match in Knoxville. The 26-year-old even held up much better than Shelton physically as the week went on. After three straight-set wins, Eubanks was engaged in a tough battle against top-seeded Michael Mmoh, eventually outlasting his compatriot in the decider. Another clash vs Shelton was bound to have huge implications for the Australian Open USTA wildcard challenge.

Both players were understandably fairly tired by the time they reached the final, giving the fans one sloppy set each. The third was of much higher-quality with Shelton saving a couple of key break points. Despite being the better player from 1-5 down in the opening set, Eubanks failed to keep that going in the deciding tie-breaker.

Shelton claimed a second title in as many weeks 6-3 1-6 7-6 and is now just 43 points away from the top 100. He also has a big lead over Eubanks and Tennys Sandgren in the Australian Open wildcard challenge (67 points), leaving the two other contenders without a chance if he can make the semifinals in Champaign. He’s also getting close to securing his spot in Melbourne automatically though.

Calgary

Dominik Koepfer finished runner-up in Cary in September, but only played one match after that, entering Calgary after a break of about six weeks. The German wasted no time and was back in the saddle very quickly, dropping just one set on the way to his second Challenger final of the season. Harold Mayot managed to push him to a deciding set, but Koepfer was never really in trouble. In the final four, he stopped the talented collegian Gabriel Diallo (University of Kentucky).

Aleksandar Vukic had his summer ruined by injuries and it took the Australian a while to get back on the right track. Even in the two-week Challenger swing at home, he only won one match and suffered disappointing exits to Colin Sinclair and Adam Walton. Calgary brought some welcome change as he fought back from a 4-6 0-3 deficit against Charles Broom in the second round and then played a hundred times better in dismissing Alexis Galarneau and Maks Kasnikowski.

Vukic’s ground game was very up-and-down throughout the week and along with Koepfer’s unpleasant lefty spins, this wasn’t a great combination. The Australian found some rhythm in the second set, but couldn’t put the opponent into any trouble on his serve until the last game, meanwhile constantly having to fight hard to hold.

Koepfer claimed his second Challenger title (Ilkley 2019) 6-2 6-4. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Challenger events this week – the champion in Drummondville, the runner-up in Champaign.

Montevideo

Tomas Martin Etcheverry lost in the opening round in Guayaquil, but was back to his best right off the bat in Montevideo. The 23-year-old fended off three very dangerous opponents in straight sets (Nikola Milojevic, Mariano Navone, Facundo Diaz Acosta), before coming up against Daniel Altmaier, trying to avenge his Lima defeat from last month. He did that in a very brutal way, winning the last five points of the match from 3-6 down in the deciding set tie-break.

Olivieri dropped down to the ITF 25K level last week, suffering a shock exit to world #864 Gabriel Alejandro Hidalgo in Salta. That’s why no one expected him to have a good run in Montevideo. The Argentinian was on fire though, pulling off four consecutive upsets to make his first Challenger final. He took out Jan Choinski, Gastao Elias, Marco Trungelliti, and then Franco Agamenone in the final four, winning the last match from 2-4 down in the deciding set.

Despite the power discrepancy, Olivieri was playing the matchup extremely well against a slightly-drained Etcheverry. His point construction was very efficient and he was wrapping up many points at the net with clinical volleying. However, he almost blew the second set despite many leads, most importantly 4-1 up with a double break and a chance to serve it out. He eventually leveled the match with the third set delayed until Monday due to rain.

Olivieri claimed his maiden Challenger title 7-6 6-7 6-3, pulling off a fifth consecutive upset and pretty much ensuring his Australian Open qualifying spot. Etcheverry is taking this week off, while the champion is expected to appear in Sao Leopoldo.

Matsuyama

Tung-Lin Wu missed a match point against the eventual champion Christopher O’Connell in Yokohama and kept up the good form here. Despite going down 1-6 1-2 (break in the 2nd set) to Hiroki Moriya and 2-4 in the third to Kaichi Uchida, the Taiwanese kept surviving and found a much cleaner performance to dispatch Nam Hoang Ly in the semifinals. Wu had grabbed his maiden Challenger title earlier in 2022 in Tallahassee.

The former junior world #2 Hong had a fantastic run to the semifinals in Busan the month before, pulling off another good set of wins to make his maiden Challenger final in Matsuyama. Starting from the qualifying draw, Hong absolutely dismantled all his opponents on the way to the final four, dropping just 22 games in ten sets. The only one who came close to beating him was the 2019 Wimbledon boys’ singles champion, Shintaro Mochizuki.

Wu’s explosive shotmaking was expected to prove too much for the ultra-consistent Hong, but the Taiwanese didn’t perform up to his standards in the final. He sprayed errors way too much and compared to the opponent, it was he who looked as if this was his maiden final at this level. Hong took his first Challenger title 6-2 6-3 and will find himself at a career-high world #252 in the ATP Rankings. Neither player is signed up for any event until the end of the season, the champion chose not to take a special exempt into Kobe.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held this week:

  • HPP Open (Helsinki, Challenger 90, indoor hard)
  • Paine Schwartz Partners Challenger (Champaign, Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Challenger Banque Nationale de Drummondville (Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Kobe Challenger (Challenger 80, indoor hard)
  • Challenger Dove Men+Care Sao Leo Open de Tenis (Sao Leopoldo, Challenger 80, clay)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Pavel Kotov (Helsinki)
  • Christopher O’Connell (Kobe)

First-round matches to watch:

Helsinki

  • (4) Norbert Gombos vs Mattia Bellucci
  • Zizou Bergs vs (3) Tim van Rijthoven

Champaign

  • (7) Aleksandar Kovacevic vs Alafia Ayeni
  • Ernesto Escobedo vs Zachary Svajda

Drummondville

  • (3) Vasek Pospisil vs Dominik Koepfer
  • Valentin Vacherot vs (2) Michael Mmoh

Kobe

  • (PR) Yuichi Sugita vs Beibit Zhukayev
  • Dane Sweeny vs (3) Rinky Hijikata

Sao Leopoldo

  • Mariano Navone vs (8) Gastao Elias
  • (7) Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida vs Daniel Dutra da Silva

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images