Cleveland Open Shines Spotlight on Amateurs

This past week, the Cleveland Racquet Club hosted the Cleveland Open, an ATP Challenger Tour Event. The Challenger circuit is best described as the minor league of tennis, where many young up-and-comers make their first mark and struggling veterans rediscover their form. Fans could watch players such as Alex Michelsen, Wu Yibing, Zachary Svajda, Ryan Harrison, Stevie Johnson, and most notably, Jack Sock.

Tennis great Mary Joe Fernández, who resides in Cleveland, was in the stands throughout the week. Fernández is a former World No. 4 who reached the finals of three Grand Slams in singles: the 1990 and 1992 Australian Open, along with the 1993 French Open. She also represented the United States at the 1992 Summer Olympics, where she earned her country a bronze medal.

“This is where you can really see the next generation develop and go on to do really well,” Fernández said in an interview with the Review.

Tennis is a notoriously expensive and exclusive sport that can be inaccessible to many young people. The equipment is not cheap, and court rental prices can be high, with some clubs charging $20 an hour just to rent a court. Lessons are even more expensive, with high-quality coaches often charging $100 or more for just 60 minutes of teaching.

Since access to attending professional tennis matches can be rare, the Cleveland Open, which is completely free to attend during the first five days, is a prime opportunity for fans to watch elite tennis players.

“I’ve lived in Cleveland for the last 20 years, and this is my club and where my kids learned to play tennis,” Fernández said. “To be able to come when the kids were little was really inspiring for them to watch such great tennis.”

The most famous and celebrated player in the draw, Jack Sock, took on Alex Michelsen in the first round. Sock, a former World No. 8 and Champion of both Grand Slam Doubles and Mixed Doubles, played his first match of the new year against a red-hot opponent. Michelsen came into the Cleveland Open having made the finals of his past four tournaments, winning two, including his victory over Lucas Renard in the finals of the Edmond Open on Jan. 23.

18-year-old Michelsen’s lack of experience against top players was on display early in the match, where he was visibly tight and missed multiple routine shots that gave Sock the early break of serve and a quick 3–1 lead. Sock was seemingly in control of the first set until Michelsen found another gear and broke Sock back to even the match at 5–5. Michelsen went on to dominate the tiebreak and carry that momentum through to the second set. As his opponent’s level rose, Sock’s spirits crashed and the match ended with Michelsen prevailing 7–6 (3), 6–4.

Michelsen was proud of his performance and his perseverance throughout the match.

“I was feeling good throughout the match, and I did everything well,” Michelsen said in an interview with ATP Tour. “I executed the game plan very well. I knew he was going to come out firing. His serve and forehand are obviously fantastic, that’s how he got to top 10 in the world. But I stuck to the game plan and it worked well. Best win of my life so far.”

Another young American was especially impressive this week. Aleksandar Kovacevic, a 24-yearold from New York City and the fifth seed at the Cleveland Open, had crashed out in the first qualification round at the Australian Open in early January and had not played a tournament since. In his first round match, he held a match point against Alex Rybakov at 7–6 in the second set tiebreak. After floundering that match point and losing the set, Kovacevic recovered well and won the third set with ease, ultimately prevailing 7–6 (7), 6–7 (7), 6–2. Kovacevic’s sole straight set victory this week came at the expense of a veteran Ukrainian, Illya Marchenko. Kovacevic’s serve was never broken and he saved both break points he faced as he cruised to a 7–5, 6–3 win.

Kovacevic wowed fans again in his next two matches, both of which were grueling three-set wins against the third-seed veteran and crowd favorite Stevie Johnson, and first seed Emilio Gomez, respectively. Kovacevic found himself running the gauntlet, since second-seed Wu Yibing stood in the way between him and the trophy. Wu and Kovacevic had previously faced off in the finals of a Challenger Tour event in Indianapolis in July 2022, with Wu winning 6–7 (10), 7–6 (13), 6–3.

The final was full of stellar tennis and tense scorelines. Wu came out firing, breaking his opponent in the third game of the match and then again to close out the first set 6–3. The second set was incredibly tight with neither player facing a break point until 5–5. Wu could nearly taste his fifth Challenger Tour title, but Kovacevic broke his serve easily and subsequently held serve to even the match at one set all. The final set was about as tense as a set could be. Kovacevic broke Wu’s serve at 4–4 to serve for the match, but was broken at 0–40. He didn’t waste his second opportunity, however, and won his maiden Challenger Tour event 3–6, 7–5, 7–6 (2).

The Cleveland Open is an excellent annual opportunity for fans to witness professional tennis at an affordable cost and create a personal experience. Players like Kovacevic often leave their first lasting impression on tour and will hopefully be seen raising trophies at higher levels of the game in later years.