Win titles and you will quickly climb the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Though much easier said than done, those are the hopes and dreams for the young stars on the ATP Challenger Tour who are hungry for a professional breakthrough. And all four of this week’s Challenger Tour champions are at a career-high Pepperstone ATP Ranking following their triumphs.
American Aleksandar Kovacevic triumphed in Cleveland for his maiden Challenger crown while Rinky Hijikata won in Burnie, Australia to back up his Grand Slam doubles title Down Under. Matteo Arnaldi and Roman Safiullin also lifted trophies on the Challenger Tour this week.
Kovacevic rallied from a set down in the Cleveland Open final to defeat Wu Yibing 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(2). The American avenged his Indianapolis Challenger loss to Wu, who defeated him in July after fending off six championship points.
En route to the Cleveland title, the former University of Illinois standout needed a deciding set in four of his five matches and took out the top three seeds: Emilio Gomez, Wu and Steve Johnson. The Challenger 75 title lifted Kovacevic to a career-high World No. 125 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
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Wu, who has reached five Challenger finals within the past year, rose to No. 97 and joined countryman Zhang Zhizhen as the only Chinese men to crack the Top 100. Wu and Zhang also battled through qualifying at the 2022 US Open to become the first Chinese men to compete in the main draw at Flushing Meadows. The Hangzhou-native Wu made a run to the third round before falling to then-World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev.
From the Australian Open doubles title to collecting a Challenger crown on home soil, Hijikata has had a dream start to 2023. The 21-year-old did not drop a set all week en route to the title at the Caterpillar Burnie International. In the all-Aussie final, Hijikata downed top seed James Duckworth 6-3, 6-3.
“I’m stoked to be able to hold the trophy,” Hijikata said. “I wanted to come here and set my year up well and have a strong tournament. I’m pretty happy with the way I played throughout the whole week. I thought I competed well and kept a good level in all my matches. I think it’s another good stepping stone and hopefully I can keep improving.”
Rinky Hijikata at the 2023 Burnie Challenger.” />
Rinky Hijikata at the 2023 Burnie Challenger. Credit: Cameron Wilson
Hijikata paired with countryman Jason Kubler last month at the Australian Open, where the wild cards went on a fairytale run to collect their maiden major title. Hijikata and Kubler followed in the footsteps of Thanasi Kokkinakis and Nick Kyrgios, who won the 2022 Australian Open title as wild cards.
Following his title in Tasmania, the former University of North Carolina star Hijikata climbed to a career-high World No. 119.
On the Canary island Tenerife, the Italian Arnaldi captured his second Challenger title after needing just 58 minutes to defeat countryman Raul Brancaccio in the final 6-1, 6-2.
“I’m super happy with how I played this week,” Arnaldi said. “After the second-round match, I started to play better and better. I think that was the key to winning the tournament.
“Now I will try to go and play more ATP [Tour-level events]. And to play ATP with two Challenger titles and so many matches behind me, that will help a lot.”
Matteo Arnaldi triumphs at the Tenerife Challenger-2.” />
Matteo Arnaldi triumphs at the Tenerife Challenger-2. Credit: MEF Tennis Events
Arnaldi, 21, claimed his maiden Challenger title last May on home soil in Francavilla al Mare. The Sanremo-native was also a finalist at the 2022 San Marino and Saint Tropez Challengers. Arnaldi competed at the 2022 Next Gen ATP Finals as an alternate, but suffered a round-robin exit. The Italian’s title at the Tenerife Challenger-2 lifted him to a career-high World No. 110.
“Since I was a child, it’s been a goal to be in the Top 100,” Arnaldi said. “I try to think match by match and try my best every day. I know it’s close but still a bit far. I will try my best to get in and be in the main draw for Roland Garros.”
After a strong showing in 2022, including two Challenger titles (Nur-Sultan, Chicago), Safiullin is building upon his momentum. The former junior World No. 2 boasted an 18-6 Challenger record last season and reached two tour-level semi-finals: Marseille (l. Auger-Aliassime) and Tel Aviv (l. Djokovic). Following this week’s triumph in Koblenz, the 25-year-old rose to a career-high World No. 82.
Roman Safiullin collects the title at the 2023 Koblenz Challenger.” />
Roman Safiullin collects the title at the 2023 Koblenz Challenger. Credit: Meierhans Fotografie