Yibing Wu became the first player to break the top 100 in 2023. The Chinese player made it by reaching the final in Cleveland, but he did not go on to win the event, losing to Aleksandar Kovacevic. Roman Safiullin, Matteo Arnaldi, and Rinky Hijikata were the other winners in the very exciting week of Challenger action around the world. Read back on this week’s action:
Vasek Pospisil had only taken one win in his four previous events in 2023, but it was probably a bit misleading given he won a set in every single match. The Canadian in theory shouldn’t enjoy slower indoor hard courts, but that turned out to be untrue as his first serve still hurt the opponents and he had a lot of time to set up for the forehand. Pospisil blasted 39 aces and was only broken four times on the way to the final, not dropping a set (only Mats Rosenkranz got him to a tie-break, even two of them).
Roman Safiullin on the other hand, lost a set in all his first four matches in Koblenz. Struggling a bit to adjust to the slow and high-bouncing indoor court at first, the Russian had to do a lot of problem-solving and keep trying to escape his opponents in the deciders. Luckily for him, most of these third sets he was able to take very convincingly. The only one where he struggled was against Antoine Escoffier, but he managed to clinch it 7-6 after coming back from 0-3 down.
Pospisil’s footwork was a little slow to start the day and that didn’t really disappear throughout the match. The Canadian was erratic off the ground and soon enough fell a set and a break behind. Safiullin let him back into it though and Pospisil even had a look at two set points, but missed them both. One he’ll definitely regret as he was back in control of the rally and made a forehand unforced error.
Safiullin won his 4th Challenger title 6-2 7-5 and he’s still undefeated in finals at this level, which should really help him stick around the top 100 for a lot longer (he’s dropping Marseille semifinals soon). Both players very narrowly missed the cut for Montpellier (ATP 250) main draw, but will have to take next week off (the Canadian plays that event in doubles though).
Matteo Arnaldi started his tournament with a couple of topsy-turvy affairs against Alessandro Giannessi and Shintaro Mochizuki. The Italian got a break early in both deciding sets though and never looked back. His level massively increased as the week went on and he needed that, because so did the quality of the opposition. Arnaldi was simply clinical in his dismissals of Oleksii Krutykh and Nicolas Alvarez Varona, grabbing a 2nd hardcourt Challenger final of his career.
Raul Brancaccio lost his first set of the event 0-6 to Nikola Milojevic, but managed to clean up his game in time to take the match. The Italian had already won a hard court Challenger earlier this year in Noumea, where he saved a match point in dramatic fashion against Laurent Lokoli. Making another final required him to beat Daniel Cox and Carlos Taberner, before receiving a walkover from an injured Lloyd Harris in the semifinals.
While Arnaldi was pulling off some textbook defending in his previous two matches, he just wasn’t required to do the same in the final. Brancaccio fired a few good forehands, but couldn’t keep the ball in play enough to trouble his younger compatriot. He also had a medical time-out due to a blister on his hand at 1-6 1-2 down, but it didn’t help as he wasn’t doing any damage on return (just one deuce, no break points).
Arnaldi clinched his 2nd Challenger title 6-1 6-2 in just 58 minutes and finds himself just 37 points away from the top 100 at World No. 110. He chose to withdraw from the 3rd event in Tenerife, while Brancaccio intends to play it.
Yibing Wu was in trouble early in the tournament, dropping a second set 0-6 to Aidan Mayo. While he quickly went up 4-1 in the decider, the American leveled the score before the former junior World No. 1 was finally able to come out on top. Strong Kirchheimer also posed Wu plenty of questions, getting him to a couple of tie-breakers. From that point onwards, the Chinese was unstoppable again and by beating Tennys Sandgren in the semifinals, he secured a top 100 debut just 371 days after his return from an almost three-year-long hiatus.
Aleksandar Kovacevic was very underwhelming against Carlos Taberner in Australian Open qualifying, but the 24-year-old bounced back in style in Cleveland. Down a set to both Steve Johnson and Emilio Gomez (against the former it even got to 0-2 in the 2nd and 1-4 in the 3rd), he was able to pull out some of his smartest tennis yet and select his shots carefully to come up with the wins. Still lacking a professional title of any kind, Kovacevic secured himself a third opportunity (second in a Challenger).
The previous one also came against Wu – Indianapolis 2022 – when the Chinese saved six match points in a 6-7 (10) 7-6 (13) 6-3 thriller. Kovacevic looked like he was headed for another loss here until his backhand suddenly fired up near the end of the second set, which completely turned the match around. It was no bed roses from there though – the American led 4-2 and had two break points in the decider, then served for it at 5-4, before eventually wrapping it up.
Kovacevic won his maiden Challenger title 3-6 7-5 7-6, saving himself from another heartbreaking loss to Wu. Due to his run in Cleveland, he had to withdraw from Dallas qualifying, but should be in Delray Beach. The Chinese plays the main draw in the former event next week.
Despite being a massive favorite in his first three matches, things weren’t all that easy for James Duckworth. The Australian dropped a set to Jake Delaney and got pushed by Philip Sekulic, against whom he even had to save a couple of crucial break points at 5-5 in the decider. In the semifinals, Duckworth faced Marc Polmans in a blockbuster all-Australian clash, prevailing in another third set and making his 20th Challenger final.
Freshly crowned the Australian Open men’s doubles champion along with Jason Kubler, Rinky Hijikata did not take any time off and went straight away to Burnie to look for some singles points. The 21-year-old was still incredibly fired up and full of confidence, which showed in his play throughout the week. On the way to the final, only James McCabe managed to take five games off him in a single set, he was also broken just five times in four matches.
The Melbourne doubles champ was simply playing the kind of tennis you’d expect from someone with great belief in his abilities at the moment. The former University of North Carolina star made sure to be very aggressive and take the ball as early as possible, putting a lot of pressure on Duckworth. Perhaps what helped him was also that this was their second match in 2023 already and he won the previous one in straights.
Hijikata claimed his 2nd Challenger title 6-3 6-3 and finds himself at a career-high World No. 119 in the ATP Rankings. He will now rest for a week before hoping to get into Delray Beach qualifying. Duckworth intends to play the Indian swing, which has been a great hunting ground for him in the past (two titles).
Challenger Tour magic:
NO WAY. Gigante snipes Martos Gornes with his 2nd serve on match point, taking this doubles match Ostapenko-style
Passaro had already sniped Bortolotti with his serve in the 1st set and Gigante almost did this three points earlier. Unintentional or a tactic?
📷: @ATPChallenger pic.twitter.com/F8564jYeeu
— Damian Kust (@damiankust) February 3, 2023
Cleveland Ch QF: I’m interrupting my Davis Cup RTs & posts to bring you the latest Ch hot shot: a tweener lob winner from Yibing Wu at 0-0* 30-15 to 40-15.
He held at 1-0 later (v. Stefan Kozlov).
🎥 @ATPChallenger (info @CrackedRacquets @AlGruskin)pic.twitter.com/xGrxgMBkVM
— stateofsport21 // raz (she/her) (@eretzsport022) February 3, 2023
The quality in Krutykh vs Royer has been absolutely stunning and this is probably the best shot so far. Love the reaction from the Frenchman too, really says it all. Krutykh now 4-3 up in the 3rd.
📷: @ATPChallenger pic.twitter.com/GjNLuhDAib
— Damian Kust (@damiankust) February 2, 2023
Attacking the Kovacevic BH is a sound strategy, but sometimes it can do THIS!
Three points later, he advanced to his second Challenger final (here you go @AlGruskin)
📷: @ATPChallenger pic.twitter.com/15NMVCzx5c
— Damian Kust (@damiankust) February 4, 2023
Events held next week:
- Vitas Gerulaitis Cup (Vilnius, Challenger 100, indoor hard)
- Tenerife Challenger 3 (Challenger 75, hard)
There will be no top 100 players in action.
First-round matches to watch:
- (1) Dominic Stricker vs Joris de Loore
- Antoine Escoffier vs (WC) Edas Butvilas
- Alexander Ritschard vs (4) Dennis Novak
- Martin Landaluce vs Santiago Rodriguez Taverna
- (WC) Pablo Llamas Ruiz vs (7) Carlos Taberner
- (3) Filip Misolic vs Riccardo Bonadio
Photo Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports