Top seed seeking his second ATP Tour title of the season
Kei Nishikori stretched the best start of his career on Thursday, beating Latvian Ernests Gulbis 6-1, 6-4 to reach the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament quarter-finals in Rotterdam.
The top-seeded Japanese improved to 10-1 on the season, with his only loss coming in the Australian Open quarter-finals against eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Nishikori will next face Hungarian Marton Fucsovics, who beat Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia 7-6(1), 6-1.
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“Today was pretty good… so much better than the first match, for sure,” Nishikori said. “It wasn’t easy… but I think I did really well.”
Gulbis reached the Rotterdam semi-finals in 2014 (l. to Del Potro), but the Latvian was smothered by Nishikori’s aggressive play. Nishikori won the first 12 points of the match and later led 5-0, behind two breaks of serve.
Gulbis slightly recovered in the second, earning a break in the sixth game. But Nishikori broke for the fourth and final time in the ninth game.
Basilashvili, who relies on ruthless hitting, had an off day against Fucsovics, hitting 40 unforced errors, including 23 from his forehand. Fucsovics, meanwhile, was steady, especially in the second set, when he lost only one point behind his first serve (9/10).
Juan Ignacio Londero carried the momentum from a breakout Challenger campaign to lift his first ATP Tour trophy.
It was 16 April, 2018. A blanket of humidity descended on the west coast of Florida, as players and fans scrambled to brave the scorching spring conditions on Day 1 of the Sarasota Open. In other words, it was just your typical afternoon at the ATP Challenger Tour event, with competitors battling to adapt and survive on the green clay.
But as his Challenger colleagues kicked off the tournament, Juan Ignacio Londero was enjoying a well-deserved day of rest. A large pine tree towered overhead, as he nestled against its trunk, gazing across the courts of the Laurel Oak Country Club. The chaos of opening day echoed throughout the grounds, but a pensive Londero was undeterred, reflecting on the moment that had just changed his career.
“I’ve been trying so hard to earn a title for a long time. This is amazing. It’s been a long process and a difficult one at that.”
At the age of 24, Londero was coming off his first ATP Challenger Tour triumph. A day earlier, he was standing on Centre Court at the CDMX Open in Mexico City, celebrating his biggest victory in front of a sold-out crowd. Not only was he appearing in the first final of his eight-year career, but he had stormed through qualifying to get there, eventually claiming the title with the loss of just one set.
Following his victory in the Mexican capital, Londero was speechless, unable to describe his emotions from the previous week. Ten months later and the Argentine is at a loss for words once again. Another career-altering moment has arrived, but this time on the ATP Tour.
On Sunday, Londero captured his maiden tour-level crown at his hometown Cordoba Open. In front of friends and family, he would make a splash in his return to the ATP Tour, six years removed from his debut on the circuit.
“I arrived at the tournament knowing that I was playing well,” Londero said. “I arrived in Cordoba knowing that I could win a few rounds, but I never saw myself in the final or winning the title.”
He was an unseeded wild card who had never won a tour-level match entering the week, so how did Londero suddenly put it all together for such a dream run? Where did he develop his game for his big breakthrough? Look no further than his 2018 campaign on the ATP Challenger Tour. After many years struggling with injuries off the court and consistency between the lines, it finally all came together. Not all paths to stardom are a straight line and Londero is showing his own formula to the top.
Shortest Gap Between First Challenger & ATP Tour Titles (Since 2009)
First Challenger Title
First ATP Title
Alex de Minaur
Juan Ignacio Londero
Mexico City 2018
1 year, 1 week
San Benedetto 2017
1 year, 2 weeks
The Argentine endured a long journey as he fought through years of injury and illness. In 2015, he battled an ailment similar to the mumps, which drained his energy and left him bed-ridden for more than a month and unable to compete for even longer. And when a herniated disc forced him to the sidelines once again, Londero admits that it was one of his lowest moments.
“Before Mexico City, I did not know what the winning form felt like. It was a dozen things that just kept happening to me and I got stuck.”
But something clicked for Londero as he competed on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2018. Mexico City would prove to be the turning point as he battled to a 40-win season, later adding a second crown on the clay of Marburg, Germany, in July. Few players tasted victory as often as Londero, who was one of just three members of the 40-win club, along with Jordan Thompson and Christian Garin. In total, he amassed a 40-17 record, fast becoming one of the more feared competitors on the tour. His 2018 campaign proved to be the springboard to his ATP Tour breakthrough.
“I always knew that I could play at this level,” Londero said after his victory in Cordoba. “I did not see myself as being very far. Last year, I won two Challenger titles, reached another final, and I was trying to make the jump to the ATP Tour. But I never imagined this. It’s incredible to go from playing Challengers to get to this moment.
“Last year, I found my identity on the court and worked hard to find my game. I know how I have to play. Learning that was so important for my career. I was concentrating only on what was going on in the moment and on the court – not on who was winning, what I was doing right or wrong – but focusing on the moment.”
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This level of discipline was instilled in Londero by his new coach Andres Schneiter. One of the top coaches on the ATP Challenger Tour in 2018, Schneiter also guided Christian Garin to a 46-15 mark, three titles and a Top 100 debut. Both pupils credit him with changing their mentality on and off the court. That is, channeling their doubts and internal dialogues in a productive manner.
“I have a way of working with my players, where I work to build the mental part first,” said Schneiter. “So that the player is focused and composed on the court and when they are away from it as well.”
Not only did Londero lift his first ATP Tour trophy on Sunday, but he celebrated his Top 100 debut in the process, soaring 43 spots to a career-high No. 69 in the ATP Rankings. Considering he was outside the Top 350 a year ago, it is a staggering achievement. With the opportunity to compete for even bigger prizes in 2019, Londero has his sights set on the Top 50 and beyond.
Arriving at the New York Open, Brayden Schnur had never won a tour-level match (0-5). In fact, the Canadian had only played three matches at ATP Tour events. To make matters worse, Schnur has had the flu for the two weeks.
But none of that has stopped the 23-year-old from playing some of the best tennis of his life. On Wednesday evening, Schnur defeated World No. 34 Steve Johnson for his first victory against an opponent inside the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings, advancing to the quarter-finals of the ATP 250 event.
“It feels great, I’m really happy. I’m really looking forward to going back and calling my parents and celebrating this win with them, and obviously my coach because I’m here alone this week, so I can’t celebrate with anyone here,” Schnur said. “It’s been a long road and I’ve had some really close battles with some Top 50 guys and I didn’t quite get over that hump. So today being down 5-3 in the third and saving some break points at 3-0, sometimes my mind can wander, but I hung tough and stayed in there. I’ll probably just tell them I love them and thanks for always supporting me.”
For a moment, it appeared Schnur would fall short of his big moment. First, Johnson served for the match at 5-3 in the decider. Then Schnur faced two match points on his own serve at 5-6. But calmly, he dismissed the first with an ace and the second with another big first serve, which elicited a return error.
“It’s a hard one. I’m just thinking about taking it one point at a time and in that specific situation I knew I had to make first serves,” said Schnur, who hit 18 aces in the match. “I was serving really well today.”
Schnur’s serve might not be the most orthodox on the ATP Tour, as he doesn’t bounce the ball and his toss is higher than most players’. But it was effective against Johnson, landing 72 per cent of his first serves and winning 76 per cent of those points.
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While the qualifier will have his first day off of the tournament after playing matches on four consecutive days, his run is not over yet. Schnur has an opportunity to continue forward against 37-year-old Paolo Lorenzi. The Italian has climbed as high as No. 33 in the ATP Rankings.
“[He’s a] good player,” Schnur said. “My coach will have a really good game plan going into that one. One of my best friends [Filip Peliwo] actually beat him three weeks ago in Newport Beach in the first round [of a Challenger], so I’ll be prepared for that one.”
Schnur entered the week at a career-high World No. 154. But he is projected to climb more than 20 spots next Monday, depending on his results the rest of the event. His effort comes a week after Juan Ignacio Londero lifted the Cordoba Open trophy — the Argentine entered that tournament without a tour-level match win.
“I still have to go back to Challengers after this, depending on how I do here, but it’s obviously huge for me. I don’t get very many chances to play at the ATP level,” Schnur said. “I really had to grind my way from the bottom to get to where I am today and it just shows hard work pays off.”
Jaume Munar had played a nice match, but it was time for Italian veteran Fabio Fognini to show his experience. Fognini broke Munar at 4-4 in the third and was two points away from the match, serving at 5-4, 30/0.
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But the 21-year-old Munar finished perfectly, literally. He won 12 straight points, breaking Fognini twice, and knocked out the second seed 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 on Wednesday at the Argentina Open.
Six weeks into the season, and Munar, who reached the semi-finals of the Next Gen ATP Finals last November, has already reached three quarter-finals (Pune, Cordoba).
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He will meet Argentine Guido Pella for a place in his first semi-final of the year. Pella, finalist at last week’s Cordoba Open (l. to Londero), got the better of countryman Leonardo Mayer 6-4, 1-6, 7-6(5).
Third seed Marco Cecchinato earned his first main-draw win in Buenos Aires, holding off Chile’s Christian Garin 7-6(4), 6-4. Cecchinato converted four of his nine break chances, and will next meet Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena, who eliminated Italian qualifier Lorenzo Sonego 7-5, 6-1.
Top seed John Isner picked up his first win of 2019 on Wednesday, navigating past Aussie Bernard Tomic 7-6(7), 6-4 at the New York Open.
Isner had dropped his opening two matches of the year, at the ASB Classic in Auckland (l. to Fritz) and the Australian Open (l. to Opelka). But the top American has never lost to Tomic (3-0), and he remained perfect behind his biggest weapon, hitting 27 aces and never facing a break point.
“I had a long time to stew over again not doing well Down Under. It was very tough… I certainly wasn’t feeling too great about my game after that,” said Isner, who lost to countryman Reilly Opelka nearly a month ago, on 14 January. “But the only thing you can do is just continue to keep working hard. For me, keep working on my body. And I used that time to really get stronger. You have to look at it as a blessing in disguise. It really just gave me a bunch of time to keep working hard in the gym, but most importantly just enjoying time with my family.”
Isner and his wife, Madison, have a five-month-old baby girl named Hunter. “I really was very eager to get out here and play. I’m very happy to win,” Isner said.
Tomic, however, held his own. The four-time ATP Tour titlist didn’t face a break point until the final game, when Isner converted on his sixth chance to reach the quarter-finals of the ATP 250 event.
Isner has won 14 ATP Tour titles, 12 of which have come on home soil. He’ll next face another Aussie in Jordan Thompson, who beat American Christopher Eubanks 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
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Another big server tallied up the aces (37) and didn’t face a break point, but Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic was eliminated. The 39-year-old fell to Moldova’s Radu Albot 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 7-6(5). All four of Karlovic’s losses this season have come in final-set tie-breaks. Albot will meet second seed Frances Tiafoe of the U.S. or World No. 143 Jason Jung for a place in the quarter-finals.
Italy’s Paolo Lorenzi fought his way into his first quarter-final of the year. The 37-year-old Rome native beat American Ryan Harrison 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Lorenzi will meet Canadian qualifier Brayden Schnur, who beat third seed Steve Johnson of the U.S. 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4). Johnson was broken while serving for the match at 5-3 in the third and had two match points on Schnur’s serve at 5-6, 15/40.
Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin secured a second-round meeting with American Reilly Opelka after beating Mackenzie McDonald 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.