Monday, May 16, 2011

Challengers: Week 19

Continuing with last week’s trend, this was another veteran-dominated week in the Challenger Tour. In what was the last full week of tournaments before the French Open gets underway, Europe offered two very competitive clay court tournaments (Zagreb and Bordeaux). Asia a tournament of their own, in Busan, which was played on hard courts.  Here’s a recap of the action:

*BORDEAUX, FRANCE (€85,000 +H): 34-year old veteran wild card Marc Gicquel showed he still has the thunder, defeating Argentine Horacio Zeballos, another veteran of the challenger tour, by a score of 62 64. Zeballos, however, used his strong showing to re-enter the top 100, clocking in at 97. This highly competitive tournament had the presence of 8 members of the top 100 and a bonus track appearance by former top-10 Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, who unfortunately had to retire in R1 due to injury. This was Gonzalez’s second retirement in the same amount of weeks, showing that he’s still not quite 100% fit after hip surgery. Gicquel took the long way to the final, winning 3-setters in R1, QF and SF, before cruising in the championship round. The locals dominated the field, as they had 6 players in the QFs and 3 in the SFs. The youngest players in the draw were a trio of ’89-born Frenchmen, but they failed to make any significant noise. Maxime Teixeira bowed out in R1 and the talented, yet irregular Benoit Paire lost in R2. The diminutive Jonathan Eysseric benefited from Gonzalez’s R1 retirement and then took experienced countryman Florent Serra to 3 sets before being eliminated. Eysseric has been showing flashes of his potential in the last weeks and it will be interesting to see if this can finally be his breakout season.

*ZAGREB, CROATIA ($50,000): Experienced challenger warrior Diego Junqueira of Argentina won his first tournament of the year (in his 3rd final appearance) defeating fellow South American Joao Souza (’88) of Brazil, 63 64 in a final that was played on Monday because of poor weather. Both Junqueira and Souza had been among the steadiest players in the South American challengers since the beginning of the season, and that was apparent as they both crushed their European counterparts throughout the tournament. The win allowed Junqueira to jump to the brink of the top 100, as he now sits at 105. Both players are early favorites to advance through to Roland Garros’ main draw if their performance this year is taken into account. The field opened up when only one seeded player advanced to the QFs (Top-seeded Croatian Ivan Dodig). Junqueira did not drop a set all week and made the final after defeating young-gun Martin Klizan (‘89/SVK). Souza survived a 3-setter scare against Andrey Kuznetzov (‘91/RUS) in R2, but then cruised to the final, beating Italian Andrea Arnaboldi in the semis. 1988-born Croatian duo Kristijan Mesaros and Nikola Mektic had a solid week, making QF appearances. This tournament also featured former superstar Thomas Muster, who was gifted yet another wild card, and was handed another tough defeat, this time in the hands of Spaniard Guillermo Alcaide.

*BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA ($75,000 +H): Due to its location removed from Europe and the fact that the tournament was played on hard courts, it is very easy to understand why only 5 players in the top-200 were in attendance. The ranking cut was very low too, as Jamie Baker of Great Britain entered with a ranking of 388. However, because of the prize money, this tournament was very appealing to those who like to avoid the red dirt and those looking to improve their ranking going into the second half of the 2011 season. Dudi Sela of Israel won the title, defeating fast-rising Japanese Tastuma Ito (’88) in the final. The win catapulted Sela to the doorstep of the top 100, the place where really belongs when his talent is taken into account (he was ranked 29th almost 2 year ago). On the other hand, it was Ito’s best performance ever, as he reached the final without dropping sets (including a very impressive victory of No.1 seed and 55th in the world Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan), and gave Sela all he could handle before bowing out at 63 in the third set. Ito now sits at a career high ranking of 114. As mentioned before, due to the low cut, there were a number of younger players who not only managed to sneak into the draw, but also gain some significant points. Two of South Korea’s brightest prospects managed to advance to R2, as Yong-Kyu Lim (’91) and Suk-Young Jeon (’93) defeated more experienced rivals in the first round. Canadian Vasek Pospisil (’90) continued to have a very steady 2011, as he Miloslav Mecir and Danai Udomchoke before losing in the QFs. The win allowed him to rise to 239, a career high. Former junior star Greg Jones (’89) of Australia also advanced to the QFs

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