Andy Murray broke the record for the longest gap between Challenger titles this week, winning his third title at this level in Aix-en-Provence (almost 18 years since his second). Ugo Humbert, won the other high-profile (Challenger 175) event in Cagliari. Dominic Stricker and Jordan Thompson won their second titles of the season and there was also a new addition to the winners’ circle with Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida claiming his maiden Challenger trophy in a thrilling final in Coquimbo. Read back on last week’s action:
Challenger Tour Weekly Recap
Tommy Paul took a late wildcard for Aix-en-Provence after going out in his opening match in both Houston and Madrid. This turned out to be a very good decision as he was finally able to grab the clay-court momentum he was looking for. In his first three matches against Geoffrey Blancaneaux, Jurij Rodionov, and Tommy Paul, the American dropped just sixteen games. This event was his first Challenger appearance since November 2019 (semifinal in Knoxville).
Murray was extremely disappointing in his first two showings on clay this year, but just like Paul, he managed to use this Challenger to his advantage (his first event at this level in eighteen years). He started out by beating Gael Monfils in a vintage matchup, before surviving a tough one against Laurent Lokoli. Despite four match points in the second set, he allowed the Frenchman to level, eventually winning it in the decider. Murray’s all four opponents on the way to the final were French (Monfils, Lokoli, Luca Van Assche, and Harold Mayot).
Paul took the opening set in dominant fashion, hitting with some really good depth and putting a lot of pressure on Murray. That faded away quickly though as his level dropped off a cliff. The Brit was quick to pounce and started dominating the backhand exchanges, never really letting his opponent get any chance to claw his way back into the match. Murray won his third Challenger title 2-6 6-1 6-2 and now has the longest gap between titles at this level for any player ever (almost 18 years). Both finalists are scheduled to appear in the ATP 1000 in Rome next.
Ugo Humbert had already appeared in a couple of Challengers earlier this year, losing the longest final ever to Luca Van Assche in Pau. Marathon matches are something he might become known for now as the quarterfinal in Cagliari saw him battle Taro Daniel for 4 hours and 13 minutes, just ten minutes short of the Challenger record (since 2010, most match times are unknown earlier). Humbert was 6-7 3-5 down in that match with Daniel and saved three match points (two of them on the opponent’s serve).
Laslo Djere hadn’t appeared in a Challenger since August last year and was the fourth seed into one of the first-ever European 175s in Cagliari. At the beginning of the clay swing, he had some rough draws in Monte Carlo and Madrid, but made the quarterfinals in Banja Luka. He started his Cagliari campaign with a straight-set dismissal of Jozef Kovalik, before having to come back from a set down in high-profile matches against Thanasi Kokkinakis and Ben Shelton.
Djere was clearly the better player for about a set and a half, even managing to match Humbert in the aggressive shotmaking department. He dropped the second set a bit out of nowhere though and suddenly, it became clear that his energy tank is very depleted. Despite the aforementioned marathon with Daniel earlier in the week, the Frenchman was actually much fresher. Djere went 3-1 up in the deciding set, but was unable to keep his momentum going and collapsed to lose five of the last six games. Humbert claimed his eighth Challenger title with a 4-6 7-5 6-4, first on clay. Both players are scheduled for the ATP 1000 in Rome next.
Sebastian Ofner is just making Challenger finals on an almost monthly basis this year. The Austrian had lost all previous three championship matches played, but is still picking up some major points along the way. In Prague, he lost a set to the talented junior Yaroslav Demin in round one, recovering to take the decider 6-1. After snapping Tomas Barrios Vera’s 12-match win streak in the quarterfinals, he took out Lukas Klein via a wild 7-6 0-6 6-3 scoreline in the final four.
Stricker was out with an injury the whole April and made a very strong comeback effort in Prague. After beating Kalin Ivanovski, he was down a set to Felipe Meligeni Alves and Dalibor Svrcina. Against the young Czech, he even fell behind 1-3 in the decider, but was able to clinch the next five games. The big win for Stricker came in the semifinals though as he dispatched the top seed Filip Krajinovic, the only top 100 player in the field.
Both players didn’t drop their serve in the opening set, although it’s not like the games weren’t contentious. Ofner quickly went up 6-2 in the tie-breaker though, but proceeded to miss five set points in total with the one to regret coming at 6-5. He had Stricker on the move way outside the court, but didn’t follow his shot up to the net. The Swiss took the tie-break and used that momentum to drive the final home. Stricker won his fifth Challenger title 7-6 6-3 and finds himself 61 points away from the top 100. Both finalists are scheduled for another Challenger next week – the champion stays in Prague, while Ofner will travel to Mauthausen.
Thompson suffered a surprising exit to Yunseong Chung in Seoul the week before and was struggling a bit with Ui-Sung Park in the opening round here as well. He even dropped a tie-breaker to the Korean, but ended up losing just one game combined in the other two sets. Due to heavy rain, some of the matches in Gwangju this week had to be moved indoors. On Saturday, Thompson first beat Rinky Hijikata under the roof, before taking out Christopher Eubanks outdoors a couple of hours later.
Max Purcell had to play two matches indoors, but also didn’t really struggle with the transition, not dropping a single set on the way to the final. Just like Thompson, he lost in round two in Seoul and was quick to bounce back in Gwangju. Like his countryman, he also competed in an indoor quarterfinal on Saturday, before taking on Marc Polmans outdoors in a couple of hours. It clearly wasn’t an issue as he dropped just two games in the final four.
While the two possess pretty similar grinding playstyles, Thompson just did everything better on the day. He was getting more out of his first serve and when he had the chance to attack, controlled his shots a lot better than Purcell. After a few tight games at the very beginning, the match quickly ran away from the top seed. Thompson claimed his 11th Challenger title 6-3 6-2. Both finalists are scheduled to stay in South Korea and play Busan this week.
Pucinelli de Almeida arrived in Coquimbo with a 2-6 win/loss record for the year. The 22-year-old was injured in March and had to spend about two months away from the court, leaving him with barely any momentum for the rest of the South American clay swing. He managed to grab some rhythm with three straight-set wins, before scoring a huge upset over last week’s Buenos Aires champion, Thiago Seyboth Wild, in the semifinals. Despite facing seven set points in the opening set, Pucinelli de Almeida cleaned that up in two as well.
Joao Lucas Reis da Silva was a surprise finalist in Ambato last year, but then didn’t really follow up that result in non-altitude events, failing to break through the second round in any of his Challenger appearances of 2023. He went on a great run in Coquimbo though, dropping just one set to the top-seeded Nick Hardt on the way to the final. In the final four, he took out Roman Andres Burruchaga to set up an all-Brazilian final.
Even with all the big names on the Challenger circuit this week, this was probably the best final. It featured a great contrast of styles with Reis da Silva’s aggressive forehand tackling on Pucinelli de Almeida’s retrieving skills. The younger of the two Brazilians played a phenomenal opening set tie-break, but couldn’t repeat that in the next one. Reis da Silva was the one who run out of gas first, but almost pulled off an insane comeback as he had a couple of break points at 4-5 down in the decider (was down 1-5). Pucinelli de Almeida won his maiden Challenger title 7-6 6-7 6-2. Both finalists will now take a couple of weeks off.
Challenger Tour magic:
Shelton's done it again, almost like the shot vs Struff in Madrid!
📷: @ATPChallenger pic.twitter.com/KrQ97EFSgb
— Damian Kust (@damiankust) May 5, 2023
Events held this week:
- Head Busan Open (Challenger 125, hard)
- Danube Upper Austria Open powered by SKE (Mauthausen, Challenger 100, clay)
- Internazionali di Tennis Francavilla al Mare (Challenger 75, clay)
- TK Sparta Prague Open (Challenger 75, clay)
Top 100 players in action:
- Max Purcell, Christopher Eubanks, Jordan Thompson (Busan)
- Dominic Thiem (Mauthausen)
First-round matches to watch:
- (WC) Hyeon Chung vs Qualifier
- (6) Aleksandar Vukic vs Lloyd Harris
- Marc Polmans vs (2) Christopher Eubanks
- Adrian Andreev vs (7) Leandro Riedi
- (5) Filip Misolic vs Giovanni Mpetschi Perricard
- Maximilian Neuchrist vs (3) Facundo Bagnis
Francavilla al Mare
- (9) Raphael Collignon vs Rodrigo Pacheco Mendez
- Dalibor Svrcina vs (6) Dimitar Kuzmanov
- (1) Radu Albot vs (WC) Jakub Mensik
- Henri Laaksonen vs (2) Dominic Stricker
Main photo credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports