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Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Van Assche Breaks the Top 100 in Sanremo

Luca Van Assche is the fourth player to break the top 100 this year after Yibing Wu and Max Purcell and along with Christopher Eubanks. The Frenchman made sure to go a step further in Sanremo, winning his third Challenger title. Dominik Koepfer and Otto Virtanen also triumphed in their third events at this level, while Ivan Gakhov claimed a premier victory in Giron and joins the ATP’s second-best hundred players for the first time. Read back on last week’s action:

Mexico City

In four Challengers played before Mexico City this year, Thiago Agustin Tirante only won one match. The Argentinian loves playing on altitude clay though and won his only title at this level in Ambato (2,500m above sea level). In the similarly located capital of Mexico, Tirante had to survive three consecutive deciding sets. Nicolas Mejia took him to a tie-breaker in one of them, but he was able to prevail in all three by performing very strongly behind his serve.

Koepfer had it even tougher since the beginning of the season, coming into this week with a 0-3 win/loss record and trying to recover from another injury setback. The German was close to losing again in the first round of the qualifying event, but fought back from 1-3 down in the decider to defeat Valerio Aboian. Getting a win on the board turned out key as he played much better as the week went on, producing another comeback from a break down in the decider (2-4) to Federico Gaio in the semifinals.

Tirante was dominating the final early, blasting forehand winners at will. He had three break points at 6-2 4-3 up (two consecutive), but Koepfer saved them all in short rallies on serve. From that point onwards, the German started enjoying a lot more success in the lefty topspin forehand to Tirante’s backhand rallies, exposing his liability more and more. Koepfer won his third Challenger title 2-6 6-4 6-2, securing his return to the top 200. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in San Luis Potosi this week.

Sanremo

Van Assche secured his top 100 debut with the semifinal win over Vit Kopriva, breaking into the world’s best hundred at just 18 years of age. The Frenchman struggled to get himself going in the opening set with Ryan Peniston, but once he got over that hurdle, his level just skyrocketed all the way to him making the final. By Sunday, he was also on a 9-match win streak along with his success in Pau about a month earlier.

Juan Pablo Varillas came to Sanremo straight off a first-round exit in Miami, but the Peruvian usually doesn’t perform well on hard courts. His first matches here also weren’t going exactly as planned though, especially as he seemed to be struggling with a small physical issue. He managed to overcome Andrea Pellegrino and Andrea Vavassori in deciding sets though, eventually playing his best match of the week against Kimmer Coppejans in the semifinals.

It wasn’t unclear whether it was the aforementioned physical issue or just a bad day at the office, but Varillas certainly wasn’t on top of his game in the final. Van Assche didn’t really give him much either and despite the Peruvian’s fighting effort in the second set, the match was quickly drifting towards the end. The 18-year-old took his third Challenger title 6-1 6-3 and made sure that his top 100 debut wasn’t going to be just marginal. Both players are expected to appear in ATP 250 events this week – Van Assche in Estoril, Varillas in Marrakech.

Lille

Max Purcell suffered a disappointing exit to Billy Harris in the semifinals at Las Franquesas del Valles the week before (losing his 18-match win streak), but was quick to rebound with a final appearance in Lille. His level throughout wasn’t really spectacular, but he kept beating opponents in close matches. Beibit Zhukayev led him 2-0 in the third set of their first-round encounter, while clutching out long tie-breaks against Harold Mayot and Michael Geerts was enough to keep him in front.

Virtanen won his second Challenger title in Lugano recently and followed it up with a quarterfinal run in Biel, where he lost to Jurij Rodionov. That same opponent was his rival a round later in Lille and this time it was the Finn who prevailed, breaking Rodionov’s 8-match win streak in just 56 minutes. Another opponent who caused him trouble was Dimitar Kuzmanov in the opening round, but Virtanen swiftly dominated the deciding set.

Virtanen went up 5-2 in the opening set, but Purcell produced a comeback and took it in the tie-breaker. The Finn had a few games when he looked a break away from losing it mentally, but he quickly got back on the right track and found his discipline again. Playing someone like Purcell requires so much patience and that’s something he had struggled with in the past.

Not on Sunday and his performance under pressure in the latter two sets was excellent. Virtanen wonhis third Challenger title courtesy of a 6-7 6-4 6-2 win and finds himself just about 60 points away from the top 100. Purcell will now fly over to the States for the ATP 250 in Houston, while the Finn takes a few weeks off before ATP 500 Barcelona qualifying.

Girona

Ivan Gakhov had reached the semifinal stage of a Challenger event on three previous occasions (Almaty 2017, Murcia and Amersfoort 2022), but never made it to the final. The 26-year-old was the underdog in all his matches in Girona, yet just kept making an upset after upset. He started his run with a tight win over Abedallah Shelbayh, before putting in some much stronger efforts to beat Fabian Marozsan and Timofey Skatov. In the final four, he eliminated the resurgent Jesper de Jong, who seemed to be the strongest player in the field.

Gastao Elias had been picking up steam right in time before the clay season, making three hard-court quarterfinals in a row. The Portuguese couldn’t have done it at a better moment as he needed to try to defend 63% of his ranking points from the back-to-back titles in Oeiras last year. It wasn’t an easy run as the 32-year-old had to save two match points vs Raul Brancaccio (the Italian had also served for the match and led 5-1 in the deciding tie-break), come back from 1-3 in the third to Pedro Martinez, and take out the second seed Jaume Munar.

Elias was very dominant on serve until 7-5 4-4, never facing a break point. Gakhov finally got him out of position with his heavy lefty forehand topspin and the Portuguese took a medical timeout on a left thigh issue. It must have been something very sudden because in just a few points, he went from moving normally to barely being able to play. Gakhov claimed his maiden Challenger title after Elias retired during the break between sets at 5-7 6-4 from the Russian’s perspective. The 26-year-old breaks the top 200. Both finalists are scheduled to appear in Murcia.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held this week:

  • Open Citta della Disfida (Barletta, Challenger 75, clay)
  • Murcia Open (Challenger 75, clay)
  • San Luis Open Challenger (San Luis Potosi, Challenger 75, clay)

There will be no top 100 players in action.

First-round matches to watch:

Barletta

  • (1) Alexander Shevchenko vs Juan Bautista Torres
  • Santiago Rodriguez Taverna vs (4) Benoit Paire
  •  (5) Francesco Maestrelli vs Andrea Pellegrino

Murcia

  • (1) Borna Gojo vs Nicolas Alvarez Varona
  • (WC) Kyle Edmund vs Marco Trungelliti
  • (WC) Feliciano Lopez vs (2) Matteo Arnaldi

San Luis Potosi

  • (1) James Duckworth vs Thiago Agustin Tirante
  • Elmar Ejupovic vs (WC) Lucas Pouille
  • (WC) Bernard Tomic vs (2) Antoine Bellier

Main photo credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

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