Madrid had its first-ever two-week event this year with four rounds, and a 96-player draw where the first round began on Wednesday. The tournament also saw the implementation of the hawk-eye system for the first time. The system had already been activated on clay in Estoril earlier this year. Unfortunately, multiple champions of the “Mutua Madrid Open,” Rafael Nadal (five titles, four on clay) and Novak Đoković (three), withdrew from the tournament along with Jannik Sinner, who had suffered an injury in Barcelona a week before.
Sebastian Korda, one of the hottest players in January, returned to the tour after almost a three-month break but lost his opening match in two tie-breaks (5/7, 7/9) despite trailing 0:4 and 0:5, respectively. During the fortnight, two amazing teenagers, Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune, turned 20 years old. I counted on their semifinal, but the Dane lost a dramatic third round match after midnight being three points away to become the first man of the Open Era winning three consecutive matches facing match points (main-level).
It was a fairy tale tournament for Jan-Lennard Struff , the 33-year-old German who was the best active player born in the 90s without an ATP title, in my mind, already some time ago. He had lost his qualifying round but then managed to win six consecutive matches, five of which were decided in the final set, including a semifinal win over his earlier Madrid suppressor Aslan Karatsev. Before Struff, only two ‘lucky losers’ had advanced to the semifinals at this level (Thomas Johansson in Toronto ’04 and Lucas Pouille in Rome ’16). Struff’s final victory over the local favorite Alcaraz could be perceived as a miracle. Struff had a break point at 1-all in the deciding set, and the ball was in play, but he missed his shot and was broken in the following game.
Struff’s compatriot Daniel Altmaier advanced to the quarterfinals as a ‘lucky loser’ too, which meant it was the first time in a Masters 1K event that two lucky losers had advanced to the quarterfinals. Besides Struff, Altmaier, and Karatsev, Zhizhen Zhang  also shocked the spectators by becoming the first Chinese man to advance to the Masters 1K quarterfinals. It’s worth mentioning that Zhang defeated three opponents in a row with deciding set tie-breaks, among them he ousted two much higher-ranked players after almost the same scoreline (7-6, 7-6 after quickly lost first sets). In terms of trivia, Alexander Bublik won the longest tie-break of the season so far (17/15) saving seven set points, and Stefanos Tsitsipas landed 39 consecutive first serves inside the service boxes.
Challengers are an important part of the professional tennis tour, offering a platform for up-and-coming players to gain experience and earn ranking points allowing advancement to the Top 100. Recently, the Challenger logo was updated during the Madrid tournament to reflect the improved structure of this second-tier level of competition, which sits below the main-level consisting of Grand Slam and ATP tournaments.
From 2009 to 2022, the Challenger Tour was divided into five categories, ranging from 80 to 125 points available for the winner. However, the structure has been modified for the 2023 season to feature five new categories with point maximums of 50, 75, 100, 125, and 175. The Challenger Tour “175” features five events in the 2023 season, with two of them (Aix-en-Provence and Cagliari) held during Week 18, both 28-draw.
After being eliminated in the first week of the Madrid tournament, many top 100 players decided to participate in the smaller tournaments featuring the highest Challenger tier. Something similar should happen with the “175” events in Bordeaux and Turin, which will take place in two weeks. With the Canadian Open and Cincinnati, Masters 1K tournaments being expanded to two weeks next year, we can expect to see more “175” events added to the tennis calendar. Ugo Humbert , a skilled left-handed ball-striker with a saga of fitness issues, survived one of the longest 2-1 matches in history that lasted 4 hours and 13 minutes (total points: 142-142) against Taro Daniel in Sardinia. Humbert fought hard, being dirty from clay, surviving three match points & cramps, to secure a 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 quarterfinal victory. In the final he needed “only” three hours, saving a double mini-match point in the 2nd set, and two break points trailing 1:3 in the decider. Andy Murray , who triumphed in France, waited almost 18 years for his third Challenger title (two titles come from USA 2005 when he was a teenager). Murray entered the event with a 0-8 record in sets at the main-level.
Stefan Edberg claimed his third and final clay court title, in Madrid, marking the last ATP event won by a pure net-rushing style on European clay. It’s even more impressive that he defeated three Spanish clay-courters from the quarterfinals onwards, including the future French Open champion, Sergi Bruguera, in the final. Bruguera may have been exhausted, as he had won the Monte Carlo final on Monday evening and had to play his first-round match in Madrid just two days later. The event featured an enormous number of one-sided encounters, with only one tie-break in 31 matches.
In late April and early May, there were two specific (always chilly weather) clay-court events in Germany (venues: “Iphitos” & “Am Rothenbaum”), where local favorite Michael Stich reached the finals in both. In München (BMW Open), he succumbed to Ivan Lendl, but improved his performance in Hamburg five days later, beating Lendl in the quarterfinals after losing to him in their previous six meetings. Stich, just like Edberg, was a regular net visitor behind the first serve on clay, but in contrast to the Swede, the German could obtain many cheap points directly behind the serves; behind the second serve as well as receiving, Stich was often constructing points from the baseline possessing more reliable forehand. Due to knee injury, Guy Forget played his last match for almost a year in Hamburg. None of three great American players entered the event in Northern Germany (the overtired Bruguera withdrew after playing almost day-by-day for two weeks).
There were also two events on American clay, the most significant was Mats Wilander‘s comeback after almost a two-year break (he disappeared from the ranking already after the French Open ’92). The best player in the world of 1988, was badly beaten in the second round and decided to practice a few more months before returning to the full ATP schedule in August 1993. Pete Sampras suffered an unexpected loss in the Atlanta semifinal, snapping his 19-match winning streak. The bigger surprise was that he lost to fellow serve-and-volleyer Jacco Eltingh , who went through the entire event without dropping a set. Eltingh lost in the first round in Florida a few days later after his triumph in Georgia. Bryan Shelton (b. 1965), the father of Ben Shelton (b. 2002, semifinalist in Cagliari this week), advanced to the semifinals in Tampa the following week after losing the Atlanta final, making one of the best recoveries of the season during a hard-fought 1-6, 7-6(11), 6-2 victory over Derrick Rostagno. Shelton trailed *2:4 in the 2nd set in which he withstood two match points in the tie-break.
Madrid (Masters 1K, clay semi-outdoors) – week 17/18
(1)🇪🇸Carlos Alcaraz d. (LL)🇩🇪Jan-Lennard Struff 6-4, 3-6, 6-3
Aix-en-Provence (Challenger 175; clay outdoors) – week 18
(1, WC)🇺🇸Tommy Paul vs. (5, WC)🇬🇧Andy Murray 6-2, 1-6, 2-6
Cagliari (Challenger 175; clay outdoors)
(6)🇫🇷Ugo Humbert vs. (4)🇷🇸Laslo Đere 4-6, 7-5, 6-4
Madrid ($775K, clay outdoors) – week 17
(1)🇸🇪Stefan Edberg d. (3)🇪🇸Sergi Bruguera 6-3, 6-3, 6-2
Munich ($275K, clay outdoors)
(2)🇺🇸Ivan Lendl d. (3)🇩🇪Michael Stich 7-6(2), 6-3
Atlanta ($275K, green clay outdoors)
🇳🇱Jacco Eltingh d. 🇺🇸Bryan Shelton 7-6(1), 6-2
Hamburg ($1,450M, clay outdoors) – week 18
(6)🇩🇪Michael Stich d. 🇷🇺Andrey Chesnokov 6-3, 6-7(1), 7-6(7), 6-4
Tampa ($235K, green clay outdoors)
(6)🇵🇪Jaime Yzaga d. 🇦🇺Richard Fromberg 6-4, 6-2
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