Virtanen earns second title of season

Trivia question: who is the youngest player in the Top 100 of the current Pepperstone ATP Rankings?

If you guessed Frenchman Luca Van Assche, you’d be correct. The 18-year-old, who is one of four ATP Challenger Tour champions this week, triumphed at the Sanremo Tennis Cup to capture his third Challenger title.

After dropping the opening set in his first-round match against Ryan Peniston, the Frenchman didn’t look back. Van Assche didn’t drop a set the rest of the week and downed Peruvian Juan Pablo Varillas 6-1, 6-3 in the final to lift his second Challenger trophy of the season (Pau).

ATP Challenger Tour 

“I’m very happy, it’s been a crazy four weeks for me,” Van Assche said. “Tough first match, but I managed to find solutions and my level was very high the rest of the week.”

Fans enjoy championship Sunday at the 2023 Sanremo Tennis Cup.
Fans enjoy championship Sunday at the 2023 Sanremo Tennis Cup. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo

Van Assche’s streak of 10 Challenger-level match wins helped propel him into the Top 100 for the first time.

“When you start playing tennis everybody is talking about Top 100,” Van Assche said. “I’m very proud, excited. It was emotional when I won my semi-final [against Vit Kopriva] because I knew if I was in the final, I would be Top 100 today.

“Normally I’m focussed on the tournament, not monitoring the rankings. But my friends were talking about it with me and so of course I looked and every match I was like 103 or 101.

“Two years ago, I was like 1000-something so I don’t think I would’ve expected to be Top 100 now. Last year, I was like 400. I was not expecting this maybe a year or two ago. It was very fast. Of course I was dreaming about it. I’m very proud and I just want to be even better now.”

World No. 91 Van Assche now sets his sights on earning his maiden tour-level victory. The #NextGenATP star will have a chance to earn that milestone win at this week’s Millennium Estoril Open, where he meets home favourite Pedro Sousa in the opening round.

The Brussels-born player, who won the 2021 Roland Garros boys’ singles title, is managing his tennis career while also studying mathematics online at Paris Dauphine University.

In other Challenger Tour action, Finland’s Otto Virtanen also claimed his second title of the season. The 21-year-old rallied from a set down to beat Max Purcell 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-2 in the final of the Play In Challenger, which is held in Lille, France.

Virtanen, who won last month’s Lugano Challenger, fended off eight of 10 break points faced against the Aussie. The Finn held his nerve to rise to a career-high 109 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.

Otto Virtanen wins the Challenger 100 event in Lille.
Otto Virtanen wins the Challenger 100 event in Lille. Credit: Laurent Sanson

Purcell, who’s tallied a season-leading 25 Challenger-match wins, boasts an early lead for most Challenger titles this year after the Australian won three consecutive crowns in February.

German Dominik Koepfer advanced through qualifying en route to a title run at the Mexico City Open. The 28-year-old won seven matches in as many days, including defeating Argentine Thiago Agustin Tirante in the championship match 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.

The lefty Koepfer is a three-time Challenger titlist and following his triumph on the Mexican clay courts, he’s earned trophies on all three surfaces.

In Girona, Spain, Ivan Gakhov earned his maiden Challenger title at the Eurofirms Girona - Costa Brava. In the final, the 26-year-old was locked at a set a piece, 5-7, 6-4, against Gastao Elias when the Portuguese had to retire with a left thigh injury.

A two-time Challenger semi-finalist in 2022 (Murcia, Amersfoort), Gakhov was competing in his first Challenger final. Following his title run, Gakhov climbs to a career-high 186.