When it comes to the main tour, these lists can usually be quite comprehensive, and when you throw your picks at a hardcore tennis fan, they likely watched at least five out of ten matches. In Challengers, this gets incredibly subjective. Across 196 events, it’s simply impossible to follow everything as a large chunk of classics go completely unnoticed. Therefore, you should probably treat this countdown as a very personal top ten of the season. The list ended up being quite final-heavy, but that’s natural, as the importance of a match also influences its perception among tennis fans. Anyway, let’s just get down to business:
Top Ten Challenger Matches of the 2023 Season
10. Stefano Travaglia def. Jakub Mensik 5-7 7-6 6-4 – Modena R1
This seemed like an absolute blockbuster when the draw came out, and it delivered to the fullest possible extent. Jakub Mensik was still fairly fresh off taking his maiden Challenger title in Prague and, at the time, one of the hottest prospects on tour (he did slow down a bit towards the end of the year, but expect something huge from him in 2024). Stefano Travaglia is a bit of a mixed bag these days, but still has flashes of his pre-injury quality but just can’t bring that in consistently.
He did it in this clash against Mensik, though, and at points, it just felt like half the rallies featured 20 shots of clean ball-striking and exceptional shotmaking. The experience gap ended up being vital, with the young Czech often feeling like he has to go for a bit more than he actually needed to near the finish line.
9. Otto Virtanen def. Max Purcell 6-7 6-4 6-2 – Lille final
Max Purcell was tearing up the circuit in February/March, picking up three titles in a row in India. He eventually made it into the top 40 of the ATP Rankings and stayed at a win rate of over 80% on the Challenger Tour despite playing more than 40 matches. The final in Lille was just his 2nd loss in the previous 24 appearances.
Otto Virtanen was at his strongest moment of the season back then and was exhibiting rally tolerance that we hadn’t seen from him before. Against Purcell’s slice-grinding playstyle, he had to build up the points with good control and was able to keep himself very steady along with blasting the serve and forehand combination. If only that version of Virtanen didn’t disappear off the tour more or less right after this match… But anyway, an awesome performance from the Finn as he had to respond to Purcell keeping him on his toes the whole match, with no margin for error after the first set.
8. Ugo Humbert def. Taro Daniel 6-7 7-6 6-4 – Cagliari QF
This is one of two matches on this list I was able to see live, and perhaps that’s part of why it’s on here. But more importantly, it was just a marathon thriller that, for a while, looked like it might break the record of the longest Challenger match (we only have the stats from 2010 onwards). Just a week earlier, Calvin Hemery and Alexis Galarneau spent 4 hours and 21 minutes on the court in Savannah, and that narrative was still very fresh in our minds while watching this one.
After Ugo Humbert saved three match points in the second set (see video below), following this one with a friend of mine was more like constantly checking the clock, both in disbelief but also wanting to see it break the record (4 hours 23 minutes – Flavio Cipolla defeated Robert Farah in Barranquilla 2011). All in all, this ended up being “just” 4 hours and 13 minutes as Humbert showed an ability to sustain rallies on clay he never really had before. Daniel ended up paying the price for being too passive when it mattered.
7. Luca Van Assche def. Ugo Humbert 7-6 4-6 7-6 – Pau final
Speaking of records related to match length, this just shattered the previous longest Challenger final. Somdev Devvarman and Daniel Nguyen were out there for 3 hours and 31 minutes in Winnetka 2015, a figure later tied by Genaro Alberto Olivieri and Tomas Martin Etcheverry in Montevideo in 2022. Luca Van Assche and Ugo Humbert exceeded that by 25 minutes, a record that might as well never get broken.
This actually came before Humbert’s Cagliari marathon, but it was probably even better in terms of quality. In fact, the only shaky moments from both players were the tie-breaks, which only added to the drama of it all. I remember having an appointment that I set for “after the Pau final,” and of course, the match was almost four hours long (not that I was complaining).
6. Alexander Blockx def. Corentin Moutet 7-6 6-1 – Danderyd R2
This is the other match on the list that I saw live. What a breakthrough moment for Alexander Blockx, who was at the time on a 13-match win streak but had to fight back from 2-5 down in the 3rd set against Maximilian Neuchrist in the previous round. The winner of the 2023 Australian Open boys’ singles was actually competing in his first-ever Challenger that week and this clash against Moutet was supposed to be a huge test for him.
That first set was one of the most insane experiences watching tennis live I’ve ever had. Blockx was crushing his forehand and following it up to the net, only for Moutet to come up with ridiculous defensive resources and force him to basically end all the points 4 or 5 times. The Belgian junior not only had enough determination to keep trying despite a few simple volleying mistakes, but even systematically kept raising his level and delivered an absolutely astonishing performance, one that you couldn’t get out of your head for a few hours after the match.
5. Aleksandar Kovacevic def. Yibing Wu 3-6 7-5 7-6 – Cleveland final
To give a bit of context – Yibing Wu defeated Aleksandar Kovacevic 6-7(10) 7-6(13) 6-3 in the Indianapolis final in 2022, saving six match points in what was definitely one of the best matches of that year. The hype for the rematch was huge, and this was actually Kovacevic’s second Challenger final, so the opportunity to exact revenge couldn’t be any better. But it was Wu we were talking about. The juggernaut who just a week later ended up beating Denis Shapovalov, Taylor Fritz, and John Isner to win the ATP 250 in Dallas.
How did Kovacevic get him then? After falling behind early, he managed to turn some of his biggest liabilities into strengths. The one-handed backhand that would often feel attackable when rushed was suddenly his greatest weapon. It fired up incredibly, be it slices, passes, or topspin groundstrokes, and especially slowing down the game with pressure coming at that wing allowed the American to start testing Wu’s point construction. The slice was so effective in soaking up the attacks of the Chinese. What a perfect way for Kovacevic to grab his 1st Challenger title (and he ended up winning 4 of them in 2023).
4. Jack Draper def. David Goffin 1-6 7-6 6-3 – Bergamo final
Let’s just look at the names involved, and of course, that was going to be a great final. That’s not always a guarantee, though, but this one absolutely justified the hype. David Goffin started out in what can only be described as god-mode, breaking Jack Draper three times in the opening set and taking the ball so early to completely dominate the proceedings.
Surviving that sort of onslaught wasn’t going to be something that would happen just like that for the Brit, and he essentially stole the second set with the break point stats at one point standing at 1/1 for Draper and 5/19 for Goffin. The Belgian even led by a break twice in the deciding set, only for his young opponent to eventually start finding shots like the one in the video and claim the title with two sensational wins like that in a row (the previous one was against Brandon Nakashima, also from a break down in the decider).
3. Fabio Fognini def. Roberto Bautista Agut 4-6 7-6 7-6 – Valencia final
This is another one of these finals that just instantly catches your attention and you watch it with extremely high expectations. That’s quite risky, and sometimes you’ll actually fall victim to your own hype with that standard you’re thinking of being hard to match. This was a huge story too, the first Challenger final between two former top 10 players in 17 years (Guillermo Canas beat Nicolas Lapentti in Montevideo 2006).
But just like with the previous spot on the list, the two big names ended up delivering one of the best matches of the season as well. The last few months of 2023 saw Fognini play with so much more determination than in the past campaigns, despite generally being considered a player who likely wouldn’t have it in him to keep grinding at the lower levels. Bautista Agut served for the match at 6-4 5-4 and had two match points in the second set (see video), only for the Italian to find some incredible backhands down-the-line and steal the set with his trademark clean ball-striking with seemingly little footwork. Two players like this going at each other for about three hours. What else do you want?
2. Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida def. Joao Lucas Reis da Silva 7-6 6-7 6-4 – Coquimbo final
This is probably where you start scratching your head, and you’re like, “how is this higher than Draper vs Goffin or Fognini vs Bautista Agut”? I understand it’s controversial, but as I stated earlier, this is a very subjective list and I love what this match represents. Coquimbo was held in a week with four other Challenger events, including the two Challenger 175s in Aix-en-Provence and Cagliari. So many top 100 players on the circuit, with finals like Andy Murray against Tommy Paul and Ugo Humbert vs Laslo Djere. And isn’t it beautiful that the best match of the week was this one at a Challenger 50 between two players most of the general tennis public is yet to hear about?
The clash of styles between the two Brazilians was just fantastic. Joao Lucas Reis da Silva’s forehand is one of the hidden gems of the Challenger circuit that will hopefully gain some traction if he ever manages to become less streaky. His ball-bashing against the much more solid temperament of Matheus Pucinelli de Almeida gave us a thrilling dynamic, and despite falling behind on the scoreboard a few times, Reis da Silva just kept going and pushing his opponent to the brink until he finally couldn’t.
1. Joao Fonseca def. Thiago Seyboth Wild 3-6 6-3 6-4 – Florianopolis R2
My favorite two matches of 2023 are both all-Brazilian, which I certainly wasn’t expecting, but that’s a fun twist. The story for this one is pretty similar to Blockx vs Moutet, and I initially had them much closer to each other, but then decided that the match from Danderyd has to be a little lower with how dominant the Belgian junior was in the second set. Here it was pretty much the same hype – one of the best juniors in the world (not yet a Grand Slam champion, but he did lock that up in New York later in the year) against someone who was destroying the Challenger Tour at the time (and soon enough broke the top 100 plus scored that massive upset over Medvedev at Roland Garros).
Fonseca had already produced one fantastic Challenger showing in 2022, but going into this match, you still felt like it might easily disappoint with just how strong Seyboth Wild was at the time (12-1 in his last 13 matches, and he also won 8 in a row right after this one).
For the youngster to not only look adequate against his fellow junior No. 1 compatriot but also pull off the comeback from a set down, was a truly remarkable feat. His serve looked fantastic for his age and in the latter two sets, he actually managed to produce more fire off the ground than Seyboth Wild, outdueling him in the forehand exchanges. If you’ve ever seen the 2020 Santiago champion play, you’ll know that’s extremely hard to pull off. And if Fonseca ends up making as big a splash in the pros as I think he will, we’ll be mentioning this win for years to come (this goes for Blockx vs Moutet too).
Main Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea – USA TODAY Sports