Friday, October 6, 2017

Mmoh wins epic rally, saves match points to advance

   STOCKTON, Calif. -- The point lasted longer than the wait at the post office.
   OK, nothing takes that long, except possibly a round of golf.
   And this wasn't just any point. It was crucial.
   Michael Mmoh and Mackenzie McDonald met for the first time on Thursday in the second round of the $100,000 Stockton Challenger. The match between two of the United States' numerous top prospects, both semifinalists in the last year's inaugural Stockton tournament, shaped up as a battle and more than lived up to expectations.
   After saving two match points to send the contest to a third-set tiebreaker, the third-seeded Mmoh led unseeded Mackenzie McDonald 2-0 at the University of the Pacific's sparkling Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center.
   After Mmoh put in a first serve, he and McDonald traded vicious groundstrokes. On and on it went. Finally, a McDonald forehand sailed long to end the epic rally, and Mmoh eked out a 1-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory in 2 hours, 34 minutes.
   "That was like a 50-ball rally," marveled Mmoh, the 19-year-old son of former journeyman pro Tony Mmoh from Nigeria. "That was a big-time momentum swing. Whoever won that rally had a very good shot to win the match."
   The length of the rally surprised Mmoh for two reasons.
   "He loves to play aggressively and take cuts, so it's tough to get those types of rallies," observed Mmoh, from Bradenton, Fla. "I just played great defense and made it tough on him on that point.
   "This was also very high intensity. It's not like we were just pushing. We were actually ripping it, so that was an extremely impressive rally."
   In truth, the match shouldn't have gone to a tiebreaker.
   On McDonald's first match point, he played with typical aggression belying his small stature. McDonald, only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 145 pounds (66 kilograms), sent a forehand return of a second serve long.
   On the second match point, the 6-foot-1 (1.85-meter), 187-pound (85-kilogram) Mmoh hammered a service winner.
   "The first match point, I got a little lucky," Mmoh admitted. "He went for his second-serve return and usually makes that but hit it a little long. The second match point, I hit a pretty good serve to his body, but he usually makes those returns, too. I think he got a little tight on those two points, and I took advantage and had a very good start to the tiebreaker.
   "My mentality in the tiebreaker was just to be extremely tough and make it really tough on him. Considering he had those match points, I think I did a good job of that."
   Mmoh also survived two match points in the second round of last week's $100,000 Tiburon (Calif.) Challenger before losing to eventual champion Cameron Norrie in the quarterfinals and three match points in the first round at Tiburon last year en route to the final as a qualifier.
   "It's not because of mental toughness," Mmoh, ranked No. 156, conceded of his ability to come back from the brink of defeat. "That's been one of my weaknesses, especially last week. Today, I did a very good job of that. I think that's the reason I won, considering the start he had.
   "I would say it's my athleticism. I think that's been getting me through matches. I don't think I've been hitting the ball that clean or as well as I'd like to, but I've made it tough on guys. I've made matches extremely physical, and they know that coming in. When it happens, it's tough to react to that."
   Indeed, 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Reilly Opelka, another promising young American and a close friend of Mmoh's, told The New York Times two years ago: "Michael is one of the most athletic people you will ever see on a tennis court. There is nothing he can't do out there."
   Meanwhile, American Denis Kudla, who climbed to a career-high No. 53 last year, "guaranteed" in February that McDonald would reach the top 100. McDonald, a 22-year-old product of Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area, is No. 202 only 16 months after sweeping the NCAA singles and doubles titles as a UCLA junior and turning pro.
   McDonald played brilliantly in the first set against Mmoh.
   "Especially with these courts," Mmoh said. "They're a little faster than Tiburon, and he was just hitting the ball so clean, so flat, and it was just going through the court so nicely that it was tough to get a rhythm. Anytime I hit a good serve, it came right at my feet at a very flat pace, and anytime he got a look, he went for a winner. He wasn't really missing, either. When Mackie's playing like that, he can almost beat anyone, so you kind of have to weather the storm a little bit, and I think I did a good job of that."
  Also, Mmoh called for the trainer after hurting his back early in the second set.
  "In the first game of the second set, he hit a drop shot, and I kind of pushed off (the court) a little too much and tweaked my back, which was an issue last week, but I think I'm fine now," Mmoh said. "I might be a little sore tomorrow, but overall I think it's pretty good."
   In the following match on the Stadium Court on Thursday, Elias Ymer of Sweden outdid Mmoh, escaping five match points in a 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory over Frank Dancevic, a 33-year-old Canadian who reached a career-high No. 65 in 2007. Ymer (pronounced EE-mer), 21, ousted top-seeded Ruben Bemelmans in the first round.
   Mmoh set up an intriguing quarterfinal against former top-20 player Dmitry Tursunov, a 34-year-old Russian qualifier who has plummeted to No. 574 because of injuries. It will be their first meeting.
   Tursunov, who trained in Northern California from age 12 into his 30s, defeated John-Patrick Smith, a 28-year-old Australian left-hander, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
   Tursunov is built similarly to Mmoh at 6-foot-1 (1.85 meters) and 180 pounds (82 kilograms). Tursunov, who ascended to No. 20 in 2006 and helped Russia win the Davis Cup that year, has a powerful serve and lethal forehand.
   "He's similar to Mackie," Mmoh said. "He has a big game, a big forehand. He loves to go for his shots. It'll be a tough one. He's been at the top of the game, so it's going to be a battle, that's for sure."
   Here are the Stockton singles and doubles draws and Friday's schedule. The tournament is being streamed live

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