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Challenger Tour Weekly Recap: Llamas Ruiz and Yevseyev Win Their First Titles

Arthur Rinderknech Challenger Tour

Pablo Llamas Ruiz and Denis Yevseyev were the maiden champions on the Challenger Tour last week. Meanwhile, Illya Marchenko stopped Matija Pecotic from breaking a record of the circuit. Vit Kopriva pulled off a crazy comeback in the final in Verona, while Arthur Rinderknech won the event in Zug as the top seed. Read back on last week’s action:

Zug

Arthur Rinderknech was the top seed in Zug and took that duty very seriously. The Frenchman was lined up for a blockbuster round two with Stefano Travaglia and he managed to prevail from a set down. In the semifinals, he faced Jurij Rodionov and had to fight back from a set and a break down, stopping the Austrian from breaking the top 100 and coincidentally allowing Yosuke Watanuki to achieve the very same feat. This was just the third Challenger Rinderknech played all season.

Joris De Loore had to take on the defending champion, Dominic Stricker, in the opening round. Thrillers would become a bit of a theme of his week with a three-hour match against Geoffrey Blancaneaux and a match point saved versus Matteo Gigante. The Italian served for the match at 6-3 6-5, but De Loore saved himself with a long rally and a forehand forced error. The 30-year-old made his third final of the season and the first one on clay at the Challenger level.

Despite plenty of tough battles throughout the week and having to finish his semifinal match earlier that day, it was De Loore who struck early in the final. Rinderknech was there with the response though and while they were still getting plenty of work done with their big serves, the accumulated fatigue was slowly getting to the Belgian. He kept fighting, but a break in the third meant the match was over. Rinderknech won his 5th Challenger title 3-6 6-3 6-4. He’ll now play the ATP 250 in Kitzbuhel, while De Loore is supposed to be back in a couple of weeks in Kozerki.
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Verona

With just a couple of Challenger semifinals early in the year, Vit Kopriva was in big ranking trouble and very close to missing out on US Open qualifying. The Czech was determined though and fought hard to get back to a spot that would allow him to play in New York. The 26-year-old came back from a set down against Mathias Bourgue and Luciano Darderi to make his first final in over a year and achieve the aforementioned goal.

The recent Bratislava champion, Vitaliy Sachko, lost his first set in Verona 2-6 to Guido Andreozzi. He was able to turn that match around and win 2-6 7-6 6-4, finding some much cleaner form for the rest of the tournament. In the semifinals, he battled a big name in former World No. 7 David Goffin. Sachko was able to beat him in straights to secure his 2nd final of the season and set up a rematch with Kopriva, who had beaten him in Prague earlier in 2023.

Sachko looked extremely comfortable in the fast-paced baseline rallies that Kopriva makes his opponent play. The Ukrainian was quickly blasting his way to a win at 6-1 5-2 up (double break). But in such an unexpected twist, he gave his opponent a few points for free and Kopriva rode that momentum beautifully to steal the second set. In the decider, he just seemed to be gaining energy with every game instead of losing it. Kopriva took his 2nd Challenger title 1-6 7-6 6-2. He’s playing Liberec next, while Sachko will go to San Marino.

Segovia

Antoine Escoffier has been going deep in Challengers on a very regular basis since the beginning of 2022, but his poor quarterfinal (6-16) and semifinal (0-6, all in the aforementioned timeframe) records were stopping him from actually winning one. The Frenchman landed a pretty favorable draw in the opening rounds in Segovia and took it with great efficiency as usual. Despite some hiccups when close to the win, he finally got over the line against Terence Atmane and made his first Challenger final at the age of 31.

Usually more of a clay-courter, Pablo Llamas Ruiz showed he can play some very decent tennis on hard as well. He already looked fine in Pozoblanco, losing to Alejandro Moro Canas in a tight match in the second round. Here, he took out dangerous players like Mark Lajal or last week’s Spanish hard court Challenger runner-up, Juan Pablo Ficovich. Llamas Ruiz saved three consecutive match points on serve in the semifinals against Nicolas Moreno de Alboran at 4-5 0-40 down in the 3rd, saving himself with short points behind his delivery.

It was a couple of crazy tie-breaks that decided the winner of the final, but before it got to that, Llamas Ruiz already had five match points. Escoffier kept coming up with great shots to save them and was looking like the much fresher player with the Spaniard unable to serve properly anymore. But on the 7th opportunity, finally an unforced error came and Llamas Ruiz claimed his maiden Challenger title 7-6 7-6. The runner-up will play Porto next, while the champion’s next plans remain unclear.
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Salinas

Illya Marchenko has been playing slightly better than in 2022 this year with the standout run being the Puerto Vallarta semifinals. The Ukrainian didn’t stop there and went even deeper in Salinas, making his first final in over two years. He was able to beat Omni Kumar from a set down in the opening round and Rio Noguchi despite trailing 1-3 in the decider at the last eight stage. Even a title wasn’t going to be enough to get him into US Open qualifying, but he did return to the top 300.

Matija Pecotic‘s story made headlines at Delray Beach when the real estate broker/tennis player beat Jack Sock. Now 34 years old and long since his extremely successful college career at Princeton, the Croat hadn’t been to a Challenger quarterfinal 2016 and made his only previous final a year earlier. In Salinas, he lost a set in the qualifying event to Blake Ellis, before overcoming a strong set of opponents in Tristan Schoolkate, Dane Sweeny, Omar Jasika, and Altug Celikbilek in the main draw.

It was a pretty fun clash of styles in the final. Marchenko relied on his strong groundstrokes, while Pecotic tried to take advantage of his left-handed spins and was introducing plenty of variety. Despite the medical time out early on, one of these approaches was clearly outmatching the other on Saturday. Marchenko took his 9th Challenger title 6-4 6-4, winning for the first time since Biella 2021. It’s probably not enough to make New York, but he might have a decent shot at Melbourne qualifying now if he keeps up this form. Pecotic didn’t choose to pick up a special exempt for Lexington and will be back in Santo Domingo, while the champion’s next plans remain unknown.

Astana

Khumoyun Sultanov had just two Challenger appearances in 2023 prior to Astana, winning two qualifying matches. Over the course of his career, he was only really a factor on this circuit four years ago, making two semifinals (and one of them in this very event). This week, he took advantage of Dmitry Popko’s retirement and came from a set down against Evgeny Philippov in the quarterfinals. On the way to the final, he only faced one top 500 opponent (Popko).

Denis Yevseyev was the runner-up in Astana in 2022, blowing a lead in the deciding set against Roman Safiullin. The Kazakh had a few losing streaks this year and was unlucky recently to run into Thiago Seyboth Wild in round one of back-to-back Challengers, still taking a set each time. That made his ranking drop outside the top 400, so he really needed a big result here. On the way to the final, he didn’t have to face anyone ranked inside the top 400.

Sultanov went up 5-0 with his backhand being really solid and the ball exploding off his forehand. His knee started giving out a bit though and Yevseyev took the opener 7-5. The Kazakh was often struggling to keep his discipline though, looking disinterested at times and going on error sprees. With both players not 100% physically in the decider, it was a dramatic finish and Yevseyev took his maiden Challenger title 7-5 2-6 6-4. He’ll now play in Porto, while Sultanov stays in Astana for a 25K ITF.

Challenger Tour magic:

Events held this week:

  • Porto Open (Challenger 125, hard)
  • San Marino Tennis Open (Challenger 125, clay)
  • Platzmann Open (Luedenscheid, Challenger 100, clay)
  • Svijany Open by Moneta Money Bank (Liberec, Challenger 75, clay)
  • Lexington Challenger (Challenger 75, hard)

Top 100 players in action:

  • Quentin Halys (Porto)
  • Alexandre Muller (San Marino)
  • Fabian Marozsan (Luedenscheid)

First-round matches to watch:

Porto

  • (WC) Joao Sousa vs (5) Mattia Bellucci
  • (PR) Pierre-Hugues Herbert vs Laurent Lokoli

San Marino

  • (3) David Goffin vs Federico Gaio
  • Francesco Passaro vs (2) Jaume Munar

Luedenscheid

  • (4) Timofey Skatov vs Oleksii Krutykh
  • Mariano Navone vs (2) Pedro Martinez

Liberec

  • (7) Jakub Mensik vs Vit Kopriva
  • Joao Lucas Reis da Silva vs (2) Lukas Klein

Lexington

  • (7) Adam Walton vs Maxime Janvier
  • Billy Harris vs (2) Steve Johnson

 

Main Photo Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

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