Luca Van Assche kept alive his semi-final hopes at the Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM with a marathon five-set win against Alex Michelsen on Thursday night. The second-seeded Frenchman earned a 4-3(0), 3-4(4), 4-3(4), 4-1, 4-3(6) victory to move into first place in the Red Group after two hours, 36 minutes — the second-longest match in the event's history.
"It was a very tough match," said the 19-year-old. "It was very difficult. There was four tie-breaks in the match, so it was really close. I'm very happy to win today... I hope that the next result in the next match will qualify me."
Following the win, there is only one scenario in which Van Assche will not advance to the Jeddah semi-finals: if Abdullah Shelbayh beats Hamad Medjedovic in exactly four sets in the evening's final match. In that case, Shelbayh would win the group and Medjedovic would finish second.
Van Assche and Michelsen dominated on serve in the first three sets, with both saving all five break points they faced across that period. The first breaks of the match came in the fourth set, when there were three in a row. Van Assche earned two of them by dragging Michelsen into longer rallies on return, with the American unable to break down the agile Frenchman's defenses.
The opponents would again trade breaks in consecutive games in the final set, with Van Assche fashioning an opportunity to serve for the match before Michelsen answered to force a tie-break. The Frenchman built a 3/0 lead with steady play and never trailed in the decisive tiebreak, though he had to hold his nerve late after Michelsen saved two match points to level at 6/6.
"He was playing very well the whole match," Van Assche said of his opponent. "It was really, really close. Not a lot of breaks and it was difficult for me today but I am happy."
The opponents combined for 61 winners in the match (31 for Michelsen), with the American's 38 net approaches often forcing the action. He won 24 of those net points (68%), repeatedly stretching every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame to deny would-be passing shots form Van Assche — though the Frenchman snuck his fair share of winners beyond his opponent at net.
There were also a combined 20 break points in the match, with Van Assche saving seven of nine and Michelsen erasing eight of 11. In his three group-stage matches, Van Assche saved a combined 31 of 40 break points (78%).