Calm, Cool Van Assche Is Handling Metz Pressure Just Fine

Luca Van Assche (photo: Moselle Open)

METZ/WASHINGTON, November 7, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

When Luca Van Assche won the last five points of his opening-round match at the Moselle Open in Metz, France Monday evening to beat Dutchman Botic van de Zandschulp, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), and advance to the second round, it marked the 19-year-old Frenchman’s first indoor win on the ATP Tour. He handled the pressure of facing a former Top 30 player with plenty of poise – and, in the end, triumphed with a burst of energy.

In the No. 70 Van Assche’s win over the 51st-ranked van de Zandschulp, in which he went from double mini-break down to match-point up in the decisive tie-break, it marked the 12th time that he has come back to win after losing the first set. That’s a pretty impressive stat when one considers that the Woluwe St. Lambert native has played 29 three-set matches out of 58 total in all competitions. The first-round victory was his ninth of the season in 25 matches at Tour level.

While seemingly headed to the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia later this month, currently in seventh place, first, he’s into the round of 16 at Metz after his terrific comeback against van de Zandschulp.

“It was a very different match from the beginning to the end,” the French No. 4 Van Assche admitted in his on-court interview in describing the feeling of playing against van de Zandschulp, who reached the third week at the Paris Masters last week. “I had a lot opportunities in the first set to break him. So, I tried to keep calm. There were four or five break points in the first set that I didn’t take. I knew if I could stay calm, I would have a chance in the second set or in the third set. … I knew I would win this match.”

The arc of progress that Van Assche has shown over the past 12 months is nothing short of remarkable. At worse, it has reflected a lot of promise. Consider this: The former junior World No. 1 broke into the ATP Top 200 in November 2022 after making his Tour debut in Antwerp. Then, Van Assche entered the Top 100 last April after capturing his first ATP Tour main draw victory at Estoril. Recently, he achieved a career-high ranking of No. 63 in October.

Earlier this year, Van Assche earned his first Grand Slam main draw win at Roland Garros, defeating Marco Cecchinato of Italy in the first round. His biggest career win, over then-No. 39 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, landed him in his first ATP Tour quarterfinal at Hamburg.

Also, Van Assche left his mark on the Challenger Tour circuit earlier is season by winning back-to-back titles in Pau, France on an indoor hard court, and in Sanremo, Italy on clay. It was in the title match in Pau that Van Assche saved two championship points to defeat fellow Frenchman Ugo Humbert in the longest Challenger final in history (three hours and 56 minutes).

Now, as Van Assche prepares to face three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland – twice his age at 38 – on Wednesday for a place in the quarterfinal round, he can look back at what he learned from beating the 28-year-old van de Zandschulp, in a two-hour, 42-minute contest that included plenty of peaks and valleys.

“Of course, this is one of my best victories,” Van Assche said. “He was in the Top 30 a couple of months ago. He’s an incredible player. I knew it would be a tough match for me. I’m glad to be through.”

Humbert goes the distance to beat Thiem

No. 4 seed and Metz-native Ugo Humbert went the distance to earn his fourth ATP Tour quarterfinal berth since the beginning of October (Beijing, ATP Masters 1000 Shanghai, Basel, Metz) after fending off No. 95 Dominic Thiem of Austria, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3, in two hours and 40 minutes, for his 30th victory of the season.

The World No. 23 Humbert, who is 15 points ahead of Adrian Mannarino in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings, is aiming to end the year as French No. 1 for the first time. Against the former World No. 3 and 2020 US Open champion, Humbert struck 11 aces, won 84 percent of his first-serve points, converted two of five break points and outpointed Thiem 102-91.

Thiem (19-24), who dropped to 5-12 against Top 50 opponents this season, was seeking his first Top 25 win since defeating then-No. 11 Hubert Hurkacz at Antwerp last year. He was denied his fifth quarterfinal of the season and second indoors after Astana.

“It was not easy,” Humbert said in his on-court interview. “I am very proud [of myself]. I was cramping and it was really tough physically. It was a great match.”

Next, Humbert will face 176th-ranked French qualifier Harold Mayot in an all-Metz quarterfinal showdown.

Around the Moselle Open

• Lucky loser Mate Valkusz of Hungary, ranked 232nd, upset No. 9 seed Daniel Altmaier of Germany, ranked No. 54, 6-2, 6-2, in an hour and 11 minutes, in their first meeting. It was Valkusz’s first ATP Tour main-draw victory and it came a week after he lost in the opening round of the Wolffkran Challenger in Ismaning, Germany.

The 25-year-old Hungarian, appearing in an ATP main draw for just the first time this year, won a Challenger 75 title on clay in Skopje, Macedonia earlier this season for his best result. Next, Valkusz will face No. 63 Alexander Shevchenko of Russia in the second round on Wednesday.

• Jordanian qualifier Abdullah Shelbayh, just 19-years-old and ranked No. 215, upset No. 83 Hugo Gaston of France, 7-6 (5), 6-2, in an hour and 51 minutes, for his second career ATP Tour main-draw win (the first was in Banja Luka in April) to advance against defending champion and No. 6 seed Lorenzo Sonego of Italy. Shelbayh, a lefty from Amman who won a Challenger 75 hard-court title last month in Charleston, S.C., hit six aces, won 48 percent of his return points, broke his opponent’s serve five times and outpointed Gaston 84-72.

• In an all-French battle that stretched to two hours and 26 minutes, 176th-ranked qualifier Harold Mayot of Metz defeated No. 85 Gregoire Barrere, 7-6 (2), 2-6, 7-6 (5). Mayot, who hit 11 aces and outpointed his opponent 121-120, won on his fourth match-point opportunity to advance to the quarterfinal round against No. 4 seed Ugo Humbert of France.

• No. 2 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia withdrew from the tournament Tuesday night citing fatigue. His place in the draw will be filled by a lucky loser. The World No. 12 was due to face French wild card Pierre-Hugues Herbert in a second-round match on Wednesday afternoon.

With de Minaur out, the highest-remaining seed in the Moselle Open draw is No. 3 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia. The World No. 15 from Moscow defeated No. 90 Constant Lestienne of France, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 28 minutes Tuesday night. Khachanov (34-17) is through to a personal-best 10th quarterfinal this season.

Tuesday’s Moselle Open results

Wednesday’s Moselle Open order of play

By the numbers

Italy’s Fabio Fognini overcame 13 double faults to defeat No. 74 Thiago Seyboth Wild of Brazil, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (9). It was the wild card Fognini’s first tour-level win since defeating Jason Kubler of Australia in the second round at Roland Garros earlier this year. It was also the first tour-level Top 100 win on hard court for the 147th-ranked Fognini since defeating then-No. 38 Aslan Karatsev of Russia in the first round at the 2022 US Open.

“I’m happy because victory means a lot to me now,” said Fognini in his on-court interview, perhaps feeling a little sentimental at age 36. “This year has been so tough because of injuries.” It was just Fognini’s seventh victory in 19 tour-level matches this season. Next, he faces fifth seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan.

“Quotable …”

“I’m really happy with the way I played today to start the tournament. It’s a really good win for me. I was feeling good on the court. I’m happy super happy to be back in Metz after the run [I had ] last year. I’m enjoying being here.”

– Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, during his on-court interview Monday, following his 6-0, 6-2 win over Bernabe Zapata Miralles of Spain.