The challenger and futures circuits on both the men’s and women’s tours this week showcased what was arguably some of the most competitive and high quality tennis in recent memory. Not only did three of the four challengers this week have finals that ended in a third set tiebreak, but Ivan Ljubicic also became one of the highest ranked players to ever compete in a challenger event.
The clear highlight on the challenger circuit this week was the $125,000 event held in East London, South Africa. The field was on a similar level as an ATP event, with former top five player Ivan Ljubicic, top fifty player Stefan Koubek, 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johannson, and perennial ironman Jonas Bjorkman the event’s top four seeds. The top-seeded Ljubicic, now ranked 24 in the world, decided to pull out of the ATP event in Marseille and request a last minute wild card here in order to prove to his critics that he was still a serious contender for the Olympics.
“The press back home is pretty rough and if I didn’t win here, they would say I was finished and that I should give up,” Ljubicic said.
Although he started out slowly this week and almost fell in the first round to Lamine Ouahab, a qualifier from Algeria, Ljubicic said his game improved progressively with each round. He saved his best form for the final and put together an immaculate performance against Stefan Koubek; he defeated the 54th ranked Austrian 7-6 6-4 with an ace on match point.
“It’s not easy to win a challenger, especially when you have to beat players like Thomas Johansson and Stefan Koubek,” Ljubicic said. “But this victory is good for my confidence and I can take a lot away from this week.”
At the $125,000 event in Belgrade, Serbia, Croatian Roko Karanusic used his big serve and aggressive all-court game to earn the biggest title of his career to date. Karanusic defeated German Philipp Petzschner in a thrilling three-set final that culminated in a third-set tiebreaker 5-7 6-1 7-6. The win catapults the Croat to new career high ranking; in fact, he’ll find himself in the top 100 for the first time.
On the women’s side, Johanna Larsson of Sweden thrilled the home crowd by taking the $25,000 event in Stockholm. She overcame a slow start to win 0-6 6-1 7-6 over Barbara Zahalova Strycova of the Czech Republic. The nineteen year old is now on a 12 match winning streak, after also winning the $25,000 event in Sutton last week as a qualifier. Her fine form has also translated to her doubles game; she won the doubles event in Stockholm with rising British star Anna Smith. Larsson reaches a career high ranking of #232 this week and will likely contest her first Grand Slam qualifying event at Roland Garros this spring.
Berri, Australia was the host for the second of two $25,000 grass court events which were being held on the continent this month. In a shocking upset, Aussie Nicole Kriz won the first challenger title of her career by beating Marina Erakovic of New Zealand 6-4 4-6 7-6. Erakovic, who’s been in fine form this year by reaching the semifinals at a WTA event in Auckland last month and storming through the $25,000 event in Mildura last week, had only lost seventeen games in route to the final and looked to be the overwhelming favorite. However, the Aussie right-hander held her nerve in fighting off match points on the Kiwi’s serve to record her second final set tiebreak win of the tournament. Despite the loss, Erakovic’s inspired play will propel her to a career high ranking of #135 this week. With only a handful of points to defend between now and May, she might be able to improve her ranking enough to be able to contest the first Grand Slam main draw of her career at Roland Garros.
On the futures level, Frenchman Nicholas Coutelot took a small step towards reclaiming his former top 100 status by winning the $15,000 event in Torre Pacheco, Spain. The 31 year old also took the futures event in Murcia the week before. Ricardo Hocevar of Brazil is also on a ten match winning streak with his victories in La Habana, Cuba this week and Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico this week before. On the women’s side, Slovenian Polana Hercog is 11-0 on the year after this week after sweeping the two $10,000 events in Mallorca and winning a match in Fed Cup. The 17 year old is entered in some upcoming challenger events and looks poised to begin breaking through at the next level.
The men will showcase the feature challenger tournament of next week as Fabrice Santoro, competing in what will likely be his last year on tour, leads the field at the $100,000 event in Bensacon, France. On the women’s side, Milagros Sequera of Venezuela returns from a six-month injury layoff as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Clearwater, Florida. Anne Keothavong, the current British number one, will also lead the way at the $25,000 tournament in Capriolo, Italy.