Challenger #NextGenATP First-Time Winner: Akira Santillan
Akira Santillan capped a dominant display on the hard courts of Winnetka, U.S.A., claiming his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title on Saturday.
The 20-year-old, who recently changed national allegiances from Japan to Australia, dropped one set all week to streak to the title. Santillan defeated fifth seed Ramkumar Ramanathan 7-6(1), 6-2 in the final, becoming the ninth winner from the #NextGenATP contingent this year. He moves up 26 spots to a career-high No. 171 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and is up 12 places in the Emirates ATP Race To Milan, to No. 17.
You seemed like you wanted to make a statement very early in this match in terms of setting a tone. How important was that for you?
I've played him a few times. Let's just say it wasn't too pretty. I thought I needed to make my statement and hit heavy and play aggressively. He's a big counterpuncher and you need to get to the net. I think I played him very well. I let him back into the first set at 5-3 when I took my foot off the pedal. But in the tie-break, I played how I wanted to play and kept on going. I'm pretty happy with the way I played.
Ramkumar seems like one of those guys that wants to move forward. How did you keep him away from the net?
I tried to hit deep returns and keep him back near the baseline with heavy balls. But sometimes you want to keep him closer to the front, so I played some short cross-court slices to put pressure on him. Obviously he's a great volleyer, but I didn't think he was going to make great volleys throughout the whole match and it showed on the big points. I passed very well today. That was the game plan from the start and I executed it very well.
What did you learn from his semi-final against Tommy Paul? He was serve-and-volleying a lot on second serves. Were you surprised to see that and were you prepared for that today?
Yes, I was very prepared for that. I think Tommy didn't play him the right way. He was returning from the back fence and I don't think that's how you can play someone that serve and volleys off the second serve. I mixed it up and sometimes stood back. On the break points especially I chipped it short and he didn't come to the net once. I think he knew that I knew he was going to come in. Once I got into the rally, I was dominating off my forehand and crafting my backhand slices, opening the court with simple stuff.
You went from Wimbledon on grass to hard courts here and then back to grass at the ATP World Tour event in Newport. How tricky of a transition is that?
I personally like going from grass to hard, because I can time the ball much better. After being on such a fast surface, I feel I was ready. Also, I like coming from clay to hard. Next week is going to be tough though in Newport.
This win puts you in the mix for the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan. How do you see yourself against the other guys in contention?
I see all these guys doing well. From Zverev to Tiafoe and Fritz, I've played them and beaten some of them. But I'm just trying to focus on my development. I'm not trying to worry about what they are doing. Obviously they are all great players and I feel like we're all going to step up because we have to. It will be interesting. Some move up faster and others take their time. I'm just focusing on my tennis and my development.
Can you talk about your switch from representing Japan to Australia?
I've been playing for Japan the last year and a half, but I feel like I'm more Australian. I was brought up there and speak better English. Japanese is my first language, but most of my friends are Australian and I feel more comfortable being an Aussie. I'm a fiery character on the court, so it fits well. I made the decision at Wimbledon and I'm happy with it.