In May of 2012, the ATP Challenger Circuit worked its way to my neck of the woods. Being the tennis professional and tennis junkie that I am, I decided to make the short venture and catch some action. I was quite impressed.
I haven’t really watched or played tennis since moving to Prague and it was great being back courtside again watching some high level action. And, as I told my friend Kendra today, now that I’m not a teaching pro here, I don’t feel as inclined to analyze the actions and mistakes of all the players. Although I did catch myself saying “ahh, he lifted his head too soon” or “why did he hit that so short?” on occasion today. The level of play was very high though!
The Semifinal Matches: The first was between Martin Klizan, the 6th seed out of Slovakia, against Aljaz Bedene, a young Slovenian who had several notable wins on his route to the semis (including a win over the defending champ, Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria). In the first set, Bedene was the much steadier player, and he took it pretty routinely. However, although Klizan would get down on himself, yell, throw his racquet, etc, he would always snap out of it in true John McEnroe fashion and come out of his little fits playing stronger than before.
He took a close second set with his aggressive left handed game and then dominated the third, earning a spot in the final. Bedene was a steady baseliner who played patiently, hit the ball deep, and occasionally surprised me with some big serves. Klizan on the other hand, was more like a left-handed Juan Carlos Ferrero. He moved well, had a fairly decent serve, and hit solid, aggressive groundstrokes. If he had an opportunity with a short ball, he’d take it in a heartbeat. He also won the Junior French Open back in 2006.
The other semifinal match saw Tobias Kamke, the 4th seed out of Germany, take on Horatio Zeballos, a shot making, one-handed backhand hitting Argentinian. I didn’t stick around for this match, but Zeballos won it in three tough sets, earning himself a spot in the finals against Klizan.
The Finals: I ventured out this afternoon to watch Klizan vs. Zeballos in the finals. It was a very entertaining match and it ended in a tight third set tiebreaker with tons of momentum shifts, reminding me how mental a sport tennis is. Especially at the Challenger level where everyone is extremely hungry and plays at a similar level. This extremely close final saw an entertaining, shot-making Argentenian against a quick, well moving aggressive baseliner from Slovakia with punishing groundies and a great ability to attack short balls.
Klizan dominated the first set, taking Zeballos’ returns on the rise and seemed to always be on the offensive, moving Zeballos around, forcing short balls and then taking over with his heavy approach shots. He knew he was in the zone too. I could tell by the subtle fist pumps and the stoic look on his face.
He had this set in the bag early on. However, in the second set, Zeballos came out swinging, He found his strike zone on his strokes and seemed to be able to work the points quite well, disguising drop-shots, which he hit with impeccable touch, catching Klizan off guard. It seemed as though Zeballos just needed to find his groove, timing, strike zone, and consistency, because aside from Klizan’s aggressive play, Zeballos basically beat himself in the first set.
It was entertaining to see Zeballos move Klizan around with his beautiful one handed backhand and shot making skills. It was like watching a minor league Roger Federer/Feliciano Lopez hybrid face off against a minor league Juan Carlos Ferrero with a touch of Fernando Verdasco. Zeballos took the second set 6-4.
The third set was dead even and saw several breaks of serve, as well with a generous net cord, which seemed to give Klizan the benefit of the doubt more often than Zeballos. It was amazing watching each of these guys save match points. They each had several match points against them, and they saved them like champs without holding back.
It reminded me how hungry players on the challenger circuit are. Keep in mind, these are the guys you usually see going up against the Federer’s, Nadal’s, Djokovic, and Murrays in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd rounds of the majors after surviving many grueling qualifying matches.
After a few match points were defended and squandered, Zeballos eventually pulled it off 7-5 in the 3rd set tiebreaker.
They’re the new up and comers or the true journeymen of the circuit. They’re the guys who have some great rallies with the best of the best but don’t quite have what it takes to get many sets or matches off of them. But I’ll tell you, when you see them squaring off against each other, it makes for some entertaining tennis. I’m excited to check out the action again in 2013!