Brandon Nakashima is eyeing a top 100 return this year and finds himself really close right now after picking up the title in Tenerife. Meanwhile, veterans like Facundo Bagnis and Mitchell Krueger also secured their first trophies in a while. Read back on last week’s Challenger Tour action:
Challenger Tour Weekly Recap
Pedro Martinez lost in the first round of Australian Open qualifying to Francesco Passaro, but was actually building up a win streak for himself at the Challenger level with the titles at Brest and Maspalomas at the end of 2023. By the time he got to the final he brought it up to 15 matches won in a row and he didn’t even drop a set in Tenerife in the first four matches. Michael Geerts was the only opponent who came close in the opening round, losing in two tie-breaks.
Brandon Nakashima also went out in round one of qualifying in Melbourne, suffering a second defeat this year to the 18-year-old Jakub Mensik. Junior Slam finalists have been haunting him recently as 2 of his last 3 losses in 2023 came to Arthur Cazaux and Jack Draper, while in Tenerife round one he almost went out to Martin Landaluce. Nakashima came back from 3-5 down in the decider against the 2022 US Open boys’ singles champion and that was the last set he lost on the way to the final.
Nakashima is the more adept hard-courter of the two, although it’s not like Martinez can’t play on that surface either. The Spaniard was trying to mix in some dropshots but outside of a brief fightback in the second set and a few backhand down-the-line stunners, it actually wasn’t that close. Nakashima claimed his 3rd Challenger Tour title 6-3 6-4 and is nearing a Top 100 return, Martinez provisionally joined that group already. Both finalists are expected in Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve this week.
Matteo Gigante must have been a little disappointed with his Australian Open qualifying performance, seeing as after making the Canberra quarterfinals he fell in the opening round to Dane Sweeny. The Italian also dropped his first set of the week 1-6 to Arthur Weber, recovering quickly to win three deciding-set matches in a row. Gigante then brushed past Jason Jung in the semifinals to make his 2nd Challenger final on hard courts, 1st in 11 months.
Seong-chan Hong was a bit off the Australian Open qualifying spots, so he played the full three-week Nonthaburi swing. After qualifying for the main draw and making the semifinals in the first event, he was easily defeated by Brandon Holt in the opening round of the second. This time he had to start from the qualifying competition. First round of the main draw Hong had to battle from 3-6 3-5 down against Oriol Roca Batalla, saving a match point (unreturned serve) before going all the way to the final.
Utilizing his court craft, Gigante was able to put a lot of pressure on Hong almost right away. The Italian came up with a few great passes and would also be dangerous on the offence, coming over to the net or finishing the points with exceptional touch on the dropshot. As the match went on, his opponent also faded away physically and received treatment for a physical issue. Gigante claimed his 3rd Challenger Tour title 6-4 6-1 and has begun the year on a 9-2 win/loss record. He’ll now be hoping to get into the qualifying for the ATP 250 in Montpellier, while Hong isn’t signed up for any events in the upcoming weeks.
Players ranked inside the top 150 can’t enter Challenger 50 events, although there are a couple of wildcard options. They’ve rarely been used over the years, but Mariano Navone chose that path after suffering a round one exit at the Australian Open qualifying. It turned out to be a great way to kick off his clay swing. Being one of just two top 200 players in the draw, the 22-year-old wasted no time on the way to the final and was two steps ahead of the field the entire time.
Facundo Bagnis had a very disappointing 2023 campaign for his standards, barely making Australian Open qualifying. A round-one exit there led him to what one might call a true start to his season with the clay specialist reaching his 1st final in 14 months. The Argentinian only dropped one set on the way to the title, fighting back from 6-7 2-4 down in an all-veteran clash against Renzo Olivo. In the final four, he eliminated last week’s runner-up, Dimitry Popko.
Bagnis was the first player to put some pressure on Navone the whole week with the heavy groundstrokes not allowing the 22-year-old to control the points that easily. The quality was a bit patchy and it was the fighting spirit of the veteran that was keeping him in it in times of trouble. He did require a bit of help from 3-5 down in the decider, but eventually played a couple of stellar games to clinch a very emotional win. Bagnis claimed his 17th Challenger title (most among active players) 7-5 1-6 7-5 as both finalists will feature in Punta del Este next.
Despite his big results at the Grand Slam stage (second rounds at both the Australian Open and the US Open, a win over Taylor Fritz), Brandon Holt was still seeking his first Challenger final before coming to Indian Wells. It’s a really solid start to the year for him though as he found a couple of quarterfinals in Nonthaburi and followed it up by getting that milestone achievement. The key win of the run came in the semifinals as Holt took down Thai-Son Kwiatkowski in the deciding set tie-break.
Mitchell Krueger fell off considerably in recent years with just one Challenger semifinal in 2023 (Monterrey). The American got his season off to a great start though and was the strongest player in the event on the way to the final, never dropping a set and only requiring two tie-breaks. The best wins included Paul Jubb or the two-time Grand Slam juniors runner-up Learner Tien. Krueger made his first Challenger final since Cary 2021, having won an ITF title last season.
Holt took the opening set, punishing Krueger for any spraying and some slightly unprepared approaches. The older of the two Americans soon started landing more of these massive forehands and improved his transition game for the remaining part of the match. From that point onwards it was basically on his racket and Krueger took his 4th Challenger title 4-6 6-3 6-4. Both finalists are expected to feature in the next Indian Wells event as well.
Challenger Tour magic:
— Damian Kust (@damiankust) January 17, 2024
Events held this week:
- BW Open (Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, Challenger 125, indoor hard)
- Open Quimper Bretagne Occidentale (Challenger 125, indoor hard)
- Punta del Este Open (Challenger 75, clay)
- Southern California Open 2 (Indian Wells, Challenger 50, hard)
Top 100 players in action:
- Borna Coric (Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve)
- Gregoire Barrere, Arthur Rinderknech, Hugo Gaston, Constant Lestienne (Quimper)
- Federico Coria, Cristian Garin, Tomas Barrios Vera (Punta del Este)
First-round matches to watch:
- (WC) Kamil Majchrzak vs Qualifier
- Zizou Bergs vs (5) David Goffin
- (3) Hamad Medjedovic vs Alexander Blockx
Kamil Majchrzak returns to the Challenger level for the first time since his doping suspension at the end of 2022. So far, he’s gone 10-1 in 15K events at Monastir, picking up a title in his first event back.
- (1) Gregoire Barrere vs Otto Virtanen
- Elias Ymer vs (8) Gabriel Diallo
- (5) Michael Mmoh vs (ALT) Pierre-Hugues Herbert
Punta del Este
- Camilo Ugo Carabelli vs (7) Mariano Navone
- (6) Francisco Comesana vs Joao Fonseca
- Marco Cecchinato vs (2/WC) Cristian Garin
- (1/WC) Zachary Svajda vs Gabriel Debru
- Sebastian Fanselow vs (ALT) Vasek Pospisil
Main Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski – USA TODAY Sports