Mark Lajal and Beibit Zhukayev will play for their first Little Rock Open title this afternoon, which, in and of itself, isn't particularly rare.
In an itinerant sport where players constantly strive for upward movement, the goal typically isn't to stay at the Challenger level for long.
But this final is an occasion for both the 20-year-old Lajal and 22-year-old Zhukayev as they'll play on the last day of an ATP Challenger event for the first time in their young professional careers.
Both needed three sets to complete come-from-behind wins Saturday as Lajal took out No. 4 seed Antoine Escoffier, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, and Zhukayev followed by edging Adam Walton, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (4) in the UAMS Health Little Rock Open semifinals at the Rebsamen Tennis Center.
Unlike Zhukayev, who needed nearly three hours to grind out a victory, Lajal put away Escoffier in two hours flat and could've escaped Stadium Court after just two sets if not for a brief lapse that allowed his opponent to break for a third time in the match's first nine games.
"I started quite badly. I was making a lot of mistakes and I was not doing enough with the ball," Lajal told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Then I kind of found my rhythm and then I went back to what I was doing at the start. ... [In the second set], I realized what I had to do and I started doing it and kept on being disciplined."
The 6-2 Estonian only turned professional in Aug. 2021 and Little Rock is just his 12th Challenger event.
It wasn't until March of this year that he made the quarterfinals of a Challenger, but he's now twice reached the semis in less than two months.
Yet up against a 31-year-old in Escoffier, Lajal didn't really show his age. After the Frenchman went up 2-0 in the second set, Lajal held serve, broke back to pull level at 2-2, consolidated his break and then added another break with a couple of cross-court passing winners to go up 4-2 en route to a 6-3 set.
Lajal continued his roll into the third set, breaking twice in the first three games to go up 3-0, and he made sure to seize the moment when he saw a tired, frustrated Escoffier.
"You can see his body language and everything," Lajal explained. "You take everything as a positive because if the opponent gets down, that means you're doing the correct things."
The vibe of the day's second match was dramatically different with the tournament's top two servers in terms of aces sharing the court.
Neither Zhukayev nor Walton managed to break the other in the opening set on four combined opportunities, setting up a tiebreaker. Zhukayev grabbed a 6-3 lead in the breaker, only for his Australian foe to win the next five points and snatch the set.
But Zhukayev would capitalize on his one break-point chance in the second set, holding his five service games to send things to a decisive third set once again.
And though the Kazakh came closest to breaking in the third, Zhukayev and Walton needed another tiebreaker to determine who'd advance.
After a trio of mini-breaks were exchanged, Zhukayev cranked it up for two final powerful serves -- one resulting in an ace and the other forcing a return error -- to close things out.
"I was actually surprised that it went that way," Zhukayev said. "I thought I would be able to break more, to be honest. .... But in the end, I'm the winner, so I'm happy."
Lajal and Zhukayev have met just once, clashing in a Challenger qualifying match last October when Zhukayev won in straight sets.
Today much more is at stake.
"Before the tournament started, I was thinking already that I could play well here," Zhukayev, who played in qualifiers for an ATP 250 event last week in France, said. "I'm looking to try my game on higher levels...so I hope I will keep playing better and better."
ATP Challenger Tour
UAMS Health Little Rock Open
Rebsamen Tennis Center, Little Rock
Mark Lajal (EST) def. Antoine Escoffier (FRA) , 4-6, 6-3, 6-2
Beibit Zhukayev (KAZ) def. Adam Walton (AUS), 6-7(6), 6-4, 7-6(4)
JiSung Nam (KOR)/Artem Sitak (NZE) def. Alexis Galarneau (CAN)/Nicolas Moreno De Alboran (USA), 6-4, 6-4
Stadium Court (Starts at 1 p.m.)
Mark Lajal (EST) vs. Beibit Zhukayev (KAZ)