Liam Draxl was challenged this past summer by what happens after college tennis.
Turns out winning seems to be right in his wheelhouse.
At least, that’s what the young Canadian is taking away from the 2023 Calgary National Bank Challenger after scoring the men’s singles title Sunday.
“Challenger win number one,” said a happy Draxl, moments after doing Canada — and Calgary — proud by upending defending champion Dominik Koepfer 6-4, 6-3 at the OSTEN & VICTOR Alberta Tennis Centre.
“I couldn’t be more pumped.”
Especially after he wasn’t even sure he’d be here a few months back after graduating from the University of Kentucky and its NCAA tennis program.
“I was done at school, and I was playing pro full-time,” said the 21-year-old from Newmarket, Ont. “I was doing well — I was winning a lot of matches. But it’s tough mentally. When you travel, sometimes you’re alone and you’re far away from home. It’s a grind. It can really tax you physically and mentally.
“Honestly, starting my pro career in the summer, I was second-guessing myself — doubting a little bit and saying, ‘Do I really wanted to pursue this? Am I going to make it?’ I was almost scared to fully chase it, which I never thought would ever happen to me.”
Draxl’s team — including coach Jon Sorbo — family and faith helped him through the confusing times all the way to this triumphant moment Sunday.
“Coming to this tournament and going all the way to winning it — you know I’ve only made a quarterfinal before — I don’t think maybe it’s sunk in yet,” Draxl said. “I think I can beat a lot of these players in the draw, but to come out and win a tournament? Like, Dom’s top 100 in the world (at No. 71 in the ATP Tour rankings) …
“That’s pretty crazy.”
What’s crazy is pundits picked compatriot Gabriel Diallo to break through and capture The Challenger here.
The vision was for the Montreal phenom, who was so prominent for Canada two months ago in its success at the Davis Cup Finals Group Stage, to avenge his semifinal loss to Koepfer last year at the ATC en route to capturing this ATP Challenger Tour stop honour.
But Diallo pulled out Saturday morning due to injury and to rest up for Canada’s upcoming defence of the Davis Cup Final 8 title, pushing the top-seed German through to the final against the rather inexperienced Draxl, who came in ranked 430th.
“Going into the match, I knew I had nothing to lose,” said Draxl, tagged as a wildcard for The Challenger. “I knew I had the crowd on my side, so I was just going to bring it. And whatever came was going to come. I just trusted everything out there and did the things that I could control. And whatever happened, happened.”
What happened was quite the performance by the grinder.
After both finalists held serve early in the match, the Canuck broke Koepfer at 5-4 to take the first set — a battle.
From there, Draxl found confidence to score four straight game wins in the second set. At 4-0 in Set 2, it was only a matter of time before the Ontarian would finish the job.
And for it, he nets his first Challenger victory and $10,840.
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Draxl wasn’t the only Canadian to hoist hardware at the ATC this weekend.
Victory came one day earlier for the all-Canadian tandem of Ontario’s Justin Boulais and Montreal’s Juan Carlos Aguilar, as they were crowned men’s doubles champions with a 6-3, 6-2 defeat of Great Britain’s Charles Broom and Ben Jones.
“Incredibly proud to win my first Challenger doubles title,” Boulais wrote on Instagram. “Thank you to everyone who has supported us this week, helping me reach a huge milestone in my career.”
“Fun week,” agreed Aguilar on Instagram. “First one of many for the boys.”
Stacey Fung tried to make it a hat-trick of trophies for Canada, but the Vancouverite fell just shy — 7-6 (2), 6-7 (5), 6-3 — in an outstanding women’s singles final, also Sunday.
The 230th-ranked WTA player ran into another rally story in Germany’s Sabine Lisicki, who three years ago to the week ripped apart her knee on the court and was never supposed to play pro tennis again.
Both were in tears after the emotional finale.
“I’m a very positive person,” said 34-year-old Lisicki, when asked about returning from ligament damage. “So I knew right away that I would be back. But the thing is when nobody’s ever came back from such a severe injury in tennis, you don’t know how far you can actually go.
“My parents have supported me,” continued Lisicki, who pockets nearly $9,400 for the victory. “My dad was actually there when I got injured, so he heard me screaming and he took me to the hospital. I probably put some grey hairs on his head. So we’re all just thankful to be here as a family together.”
Same went for Fung, whose family arrived in Calgary in time for the battle to cap the ITF World Women’s Tennis tour portion of The Challenger.
“I was looking at her bio as we were warming up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’” said the 26-year-old Fung, of 281st-ranked Lisicki being a former world No. 12 and 2013 Wimbledon finalist. “Her resumé just goes on and on, so it’s fantastic to be up against somebody like that. Really great player.
“It’s never the outcome you’re looking for in a final,” added Fung, herself a winner of three previous ITF events in the past year. “But I gave it my all, and that’s all I really could’ve asked for. I’m bleeding from my shoes, so I really did leave my blood, sweat and tears out there.”