Thursday, August 9, 2018

Hoop dreams gone, Eubanks ousts No. 2 seed in Aptos

Christopher Eubanks eyes a backhand volley
while warming up to play No. 2 seed Michael
Mmoh on Wednesday. Photo by Paul Bauman
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   APTOS, Calif. -- U.S. men's tennis has waited a long time for a player like this.
   Christopher Eubanks, a 6-foot-7 (2.01-meter) African-American, is the type of athlete who typically goes to the NBA.
   "I love basketball," Eubanks admitted Wednesday. "If I could have a second life, I definitely would be a very serious basketball player, but things just didn't work out that way. My dad felt tennis was going to be the best career path for me, and reluctantly I went along with it. I think he made the right decision."
   Eubanks, a 22-year-old lifelong Atlanta resident, continued his rapid rise with a 7-6 (4), 6-4 victory over another African-American, second-seeded Michael Mmoh, in the second round of the $100,000 Nordic Naturals Challenger at the Seascape Sports Club.
   Eubanks likely is the tallest African-American pro player ever. Chip Hooper, a San Francisco Bay Area product who peaked at No. 17 in the world in 1982, comes close at 6-foot-6 (1.98 meters).
   But Hooper, who weighed 210 pounds (95 kilograms), was pure power. Eubanks, only 180 pounds (82 kg.) with Manute Bol-like arms and legs, has plenty of that and can move, although there's room for improvement.
   Eubanks converted his sixth match point against Mmoh, the 20-year-old son of Nigerian former pro Tony Mmoh, with an inside-out forehand on the alley line. Mmoh briefly questioned the call.
   Mmoh -- "the most athletic player you'll ever see on a tennis court," according to friend and fellow U.S. hopeful Reilly Opelka -- was almost helpless against Eubanks' booming serve on a typically brisk night in this seaside resort. Eubanks finished with seven aces and four double faults, won 88 percent of the points on his first serve (43 of 49) and escaped the only break point against him.
Michael Mmoh, warming up on Wednesday, lost to Christopher
Eubanks for the first time in four matches. Photo by Paul Bauman  
   The 236th-ranked Eubanks, who also displayed a punishing forehand and one-handed backhand, recorded his first victory over the 135th-ranked Mmoh in four career matches.
   "A lot of our matches tend to be a little bit like (tonight's) -- (my) offense versus (his) defense," Eubanks said. "On the other occasions, Mike just played too good. I might have let some moments go when we played in the past, but he plays how he plays. He's a fighter; he's a competitor. He made me come up with the goods, and I couldn't do it before. Today I did a good job of staying consistent, playing very dominant first point to last."
   Also Wednesday, 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe upset Milos Raonic to reach the third round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto, and Evan King and Nathan Pasha advanced to the doubles quarterfinals in the Nordic Naturals Challenger. Tiafoe, who will crack the top 40 for the first time on Monday, King and Pasha are African-American.
   It appears African-Americans are making progress in men's professional tennis.
    "Absolutely," Eubanks asserted. "I've said it before: The more kids are able to see it and believe it, the more you'll see -- I don't want to say a rush -- but more African-American boys and girls introduced to the sport. If I hadn't had guys from the south side of Atlanta who were high-level tennis players, honestly I wouldn't have believed it was possible.
   "I feel like it's a visual thing. Kids will be whatever they see and believe is possible. The more Frances Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh, Donald Young and hopefully myself can get out there and show kids this life is possible -- it just takes work, a little luck and a lot of resources -- if you devote your time and you find the right people around you, it's definitely a possible career path."
No. 8 seed Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India narrowly avoided an
upset by young American JC Aragone in a 2-hour, 30-minute
slugfest. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Eubanks will meet unseeded Ernesto Escobedo, also 22, in Friday's quarterfinals. Escobedo, who has plummeted from a career-high No. 67 in July 2017 to No. 188, topped qualifier Aleksandar Vukic of Australia 7-6 (6), 7-6 (1).
   In the other half of the draw, fourth-seeded Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia will meet eighth-seeded Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India.
   Kokkinakis, who stunned Roger Federer in the second round at Miami in March, wore down Kaichi Uchida of Japan 7-5, 6-0.
   Gunneswaran, a 28-year-old left-hander, was fortunate to outlast 5-foot-10 (1.78-meter) JC Aragone, 23, of Yorba Linda in the Los Angeles area, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in a 2-hour, 30-minute slugfest. Aragone, who helped Virginia win the NCAA title in all three of his years there, double-faulted while holding a match point at 5-4 in the second set and on break point in that game.
   Eubanks began playing at 2.
   "I have an older brother (Mark Jr.) who played, and when I came along (12 years later), my dad put me in the sport with him," Eubanks said.
   Eubanks' father prohibited him from playing on his high school basketball team.
   "I took advanced courses in high school," Eubanks explained. "I'd tell my dad that I would stay after school for tutoring, and I would go to tutoring for about 10 minutes, then I would scrimmage with the basketball team.
   "The basketball coach told me I had a spot on the team if I wanted it. I told my dad eagerly, 'Coach Rogers said I could play on the team.' Sternly he looked me in the face and said, 'No.' That was the extent of my basketball dreams."
JC Aragone was brilliant from the baseline against Prajnesh
Gunneswaran but double-faulted while holding a match point
and on break point in that game. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Eubanks has been mentored by Atlanta products Donald Young, who reached a career-high No. 38 in 2012, and Jarmere Jenkins, the 2013 NCAA singles runner-up and doubles champion from Virginia with Mac Styslinger and now Serena Williams' hitting partner.
   "Traveling with Donald Young kind of opened my eyes to see what professional tennis was like," said Eubanks, who has the one thing the former prodigy lacks -- size. "If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have known how to go about playing Challengers or preparation or how to be diligent in practice every day.
   "He allowed me to travel with him to the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and a few other tournaments. I said, 'Wow, this is what professional tennis is; this is what I really want to do.' 
   Eubanks played at Georgia Tech in Atlanta for three years, earning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors in his last two (2016 and 2017). He reached the quarterfinals of his hometown tournament on the ATP World Tour last summer, defeating top U.S. prospects Taylor Fritz and Jared Donaldson, and turned pro last October.
   Eubanks' first and only Challenger title, in Leon, Mexico, at an elevation of 5,955 feet (1,815 meters) in April, was particularly satisfying.
   "I made the final (the previous week) in Guadalajara (at an elevation of 5,138 feet or 1,566 meters) and lost 7-6 in the third," Eubanks recalled. "I left that tournament feeling like I was at rock bottom to go to Leon. I ended up winning that tournament 7-6 in the third in the final, so to go from as low as I felt like I could -- because I honestly didn't know if I was good enough to get back to a Challenger final anytime soon -- to not only get back but to win it in the same fashion I lost the first one was pretty cool."
   It isn't difficult to identify Eubanks' biggest strength.
   "Definitely my serve," he proclaimed. "I think my match today definitely revolved around my serve. If I don't serve well, I definitely don't win this match."
   Eubanks is working on "getting stronger. Movement is a big thing. Getting out of the corners is a thing I tend to struggle with a little bit right now. I'm hoping as I continue to grow I will get stronger and work a little more diligently on the return and the movement out of the corners.
   "Those are two areas I'm really focusing on. I think I can be a much better player. And always continuing to get the serve as good as possible. The better the serve can be, the higher my trajectory is."
   Eubanks is making his second appearance in Aptos. He played the 2016 tournament on Young's recommendation.
   "Young said, 'I won my first Challenger title in Aptos (in 2007). You'll love it there,' " Eubanks said. "I lost 6-2, 6-1 to Eric Quigley in the first round and was on the next flight home. Now I know what (Young) meant."   
   Here are the updated Aptos singles and doubles draws and Thursday's schedule. Live streaming is available.

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