The European clay-court season is an important period of the season for competitors on the ATP Tour. With three ATP Masters 1000 events leading into the second Grand Slam of the year, there are critical ATP Rankings points up for grabs on the dirt.
The same can be said for those battling on the ATP Challenger Tour, with the month of May providing a true battleground for those seeking to round into form ahead of Roland Garros qualifying. Three straight weeks of signature Challenger tournaments began with a pair of French events in Bordeaux and Aix-en-Provence, and culminate this week in Heilbronn, Germany. That's three weeks in a row in three premier settings with three strong draws.
The NECKARCUP is setting the standard on the Challenger circuit, with back-to-back 'Tournament of the Year' honours in 2017-18. Tucked in the southwest corner of Germany, less than an hour north of Stuttgart, is the sleepy town of Heilbronn. With the river Neckar curling around the downtown district and a vast expanse of vineyards dotting the surrounding region, Heilbronn’s tranquility provides players with a relaxed setting for a tournament.
One of the few remaining clubs on the ATP Challenger Tour to be founded in the 1800s, the TC Heilbronn Trappensee E.V. 1892 has hosted the Neckarcup for the past five years. World No. 10 Alexander Zverev broke into the Top 100 for the first time after lifting the trophy in 2015.
This week, defending champion Rudolf Molleker is the talk of the town. The German was the youngest winner on tour last year, at the age of 17, having streaked to the title in Heilbronn. It was just his third Challenger main draw appearance. From the hunter to the hunted, his potential is no longer a secret, but he is ready for the challenge.
"It was my first Challenger title, so all the memories are coming back again," said Molleker. "There are some points that I remember pretty well and of course my celebration too. That I will never forget. And this year I already got my first win here today, so I'm just getting ready for Sandgren tomorrow."
Molleker will face second seed Tennys Sandgren in Tuesday's night session, seeking the fifth Top 100 win already in his young career. The first came exactly one year ago in the Heilbronn final, where he stunned another second seed - Jiri Vesely.
With Roland Garros qualifying one week away, players have one last chance to fine tune their games and put themselves in the best position in the ATP Rankings prior to the grass season. Two Germans looking to build confidence ahead of moving to the terre battue of Paris are Dominik Koepfer and Oscar Otte. Koepfer, ranked 173, is coming off a quarter-final appearance at last week's stop in Braga, Portugal, while No. 139 Otte reached the final in Francavilla al Mare, Italy, last month.
"You feel at home here," said Koepfer. "The player area is the best you will find on tour. There's plenty of food, enough bikes and a great place to cool down and warm up. You have your privacy too, which is important. They pick you up from the train station and airport too, which is 40 minutes away. You don't get that at all Challengers. Transport is every 30 minutes and the hotel is very good. There are enough practice courts too. It's just a great tournament, which really helps this time of year.
"I'm trying to build my ranking but it's more fun to play better players here. That's who you're going to face next week in Paris. It's been tough to get used to clay, but these past few weeks have been improving and getting better. I've only played a handful of Top 100 players so this is good for me [to open against Filip Krajinovic]."
With all 16 seeds inside the Top 130 of the ATP Rankings, the competition is fierce. Top seed and 2017 champion Krajinovic is in dominant form, coming off a signature victory over Stan Wawrinka at the ATP Masters 1000 stop in Miami, followed by a final run at the Challenger in Sophia Antipolis, France, and runner-up finish as a qualifier at the ATP 250 in Budapest. Other Top 100 stars Sandgren, Alexander Bublik and Jiri Vesely are seeded second, third and fourth, respectively.
||Career-High ATP Ranking
|Rudolf Molleker (GER)
||Filip Krajinovic (SRB)
||Nikoloz Basilashvili (GEO)
||Alexander Zverev (GER)
||Jan-Lennard Struff (GER)
World No. 103 Denis Istomin rounds out the Top 5 seeds. The Uzbek will open against Otte on Wednesday, in what should be a featured early match at the clay-court event.
"It's always great to play at home and this is my fourth time here," said Otte. "Every year the tournament is improving and getting better. The whole organisation is great and the player area is a really high level for a Challenger. There's also a lot of spectators supporting the Germans. We all like to play here. For me, it's the best Challenger.
"This week is pretty important. Every week is important, but more so now, right in front of a Grand Slam qualifying. If you play well here it's good preparation. You can check your level and the draw is always pretty strong. I think it helps you a lot for the end of the clay season."
Also on this week's slate is the Lisboa Belem Open, which returns for a third edition. Adrian Mannarino is the top seed, while 15th seed Joao Domingues looks to go back-to-back on home soil after lifting the trophy in nearby Braga on Sunday. And on the clay of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, top seed Corentin Moutet seeks a second title of the year. The tournament enters its 23rd edition on the circuit.
The lone hard-court stop of the week is in Gwangju, South Korea, where the three-week Korean swing concludes. Sergiy Stakhovsky and Brayden Schnur leads the charge, with sixth seed Soon-woo Kwon heading the home contingent. Defending champion Maverick Banes fell in the first round on Monday.