Michaela Johansson

Ascione Continues to Rise While Zahalova Strycova Turns Back the Clock

The challenger circuit this week saw a mixture of new old and faces hoisting up the trophies this week. Two young players on the men’s side recorded their first tournament wins on the challenger circuit, while a former breakout star on the WTA Tour took a big step in moving back to that level by winning her first singles title since 2004.

First, to the men’s side. In Cherbourg, Frenchman Thierry Ascione delighted the home crowd by winning the $50,000 event 6-4 7-6 over Kristian Pless of Denmark. The 27 year old has been hovering just inside the world’s top 100 for several months, but the strong form he showed by only losing one set this week shows that Ascione might be ready to compete exclusively on the ATP Tour. Despite the loss in the final, Pless can still take comfort in the fact that this was his best tournament in several months. After going 13-12 on the challenger circuit last fall, Pless, who cruised to the finals without losing a set began to rediscover the form that saw him reach a career high ranking of 65 back in 2002. He’ll head to Indian Wells next, where he lost in the first round of the main draw last year.

At the $35,000 Volkswagen Challenger in Wolfsburg, Louk Sorensen became the first Irishman to win a challenger in well over a decade. He came through the qualifying rounds to prevail 7-6 4-6 6-4 in a thrilling final over Farrukh Dustov of Uzbekistan. For Sorensen, who now lives and trains in Germany, the win pushes him into the top 250 for the first time in his career and will almost guarantee a place into the qualifying draw at Roland Garros. The result of the final likely came down to match toughness; Dustov was competing in his first event of the year while Sorensen had already contested 17 matches in 2008.

The $35,000 Challenger Providencia in Santiago featured two young South American players who are both playing the best tennis of their careers. In the end, Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil came through and won 6-4 7-6 over Eduardo Schwank of Argentina. For the 20 year old Bellucci, it was the first challenger title of his young career. Having competed in over 30 events in the last 12 months, the majority of them on clay, Bellucci’s vast experience on the red dirt make him a likely candidate to begin to break through at the ATP level during the spring season. Both Belucci and Schwank are scheduled to compete at challenger events over the next two weeks in Bogota and Salinas.

On the women’s side, it hasn’t been an easy few years for Barbora Zahalova Strycova. In her rookie year on tour back in 2004, she made the transition from the juniors to the pros look effortless with results that included a 4th round finish at Indian Wells and a semifinal showing at a WTA Tour event in Guangzhou. However, Strycova quickly fell out of the top 100 and has yet to regain the level that took her to a career high of #55. However, her win this week at the $25,000 event in Fort Walton Beach is a strong statement towards her commitment to regaining that old form. The 6-3 5-7 7-6 win in the final over American teenager Melanie Oudin gave Strycova her first challenger title in four years. Despite the loss, 2008 has gotten off to a promising start for Oudin; in her only other event of the year, she reached the semifinals at the $25,000 tournament held last week in Clearwater.

On the futures circuit this week, several men were able to score back-to-back tournament victories. Jamie Baker of Great Britain won his second title in a row in Harlingen, Alexander Satschko of Germany did the same in New Delhi, and Jeremy Blandin of France made it a clean sweep of the two events in Benin City. On the women’s side, Ukrainian teenager Anastasia Kharchenko also made it a clean sweep of the two $10,000 events held in Benin City this month. Michaela Johansson of Sweden more than lived up to her billing as top seed at the $10,000 event in Wellington as she stormed through the field with the loss of just 18 games in five matches; she’ll look to do the same at the next $10,000 event in New Zealand, which will be held this week in Hamilton.

The spotlight on the challenger circuit turns over to the women this week with the $50,000 challenger event held in Las Vegas. All of the seeds at this event are ranked among the world’s top 100, while the qualifying draw features several notable players on the comeback trail including Sesil Karatantcheva, Mirjana Lucic, and Elena Bovina. On the men’s side, Martin Vassallo Arugello leads the way at the $125,000 event in Bogota, while Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei is the top seed at the $35,000 event in Kyoto.