Sunday, September 30, 2018

Mmoh, 20, wins 2nd straight Challenger, cracks top 100

Michael Mmoh, left, of Bradenton, Fla., and Marcel Granollers of Spain
pose after Sunday's final in the $100,000 Wells Fargo Tiburon (Calif.)
Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Note to readers: If you enjoy my coverage of Northern California tennis, please donate on my homepage. Even $5 or $10 will help. Here's why I need your support. Thank you.   TIBURON, Calif. -- John McEnroe said in an interview in Sacramento four years ago that American tennis, which has not had a men's Grand Slam singles champion since Andy Roddick in 2003, needs great athletes.
   Well, it has one, even if he was born in Saudi Arabia to a former pro from Nigeria and an Irishwoman, lived there until he was 12 and has a German coach.
   Nobody is saying just yet that Michael Mmoh, 20, will end the United States' drought, although he or one of several other prospects could. But reach the top 20 or perhaps top 10? Yes.
   Mmoh took a big step in that direction on Sunday by winning his second Challenger title in two weeks. He rose 12 places in the world rankings to debut in the top 100 at No. 96, surpassing his father Tony's career high of No. 105 in 1987.
   Playing more offensively under his new coach, former pro Alexander Waske, the fifth-seeded Mmoh outclassed top-seeded Marcel Granollers, a Spaniard formerly ranked in the top 20 in singles and top five in doubles, 6-3, 7-5 in the $100,000 Wells Fargo Tiburon Challenger.
   "Michael is one of the most athletic people you will ever see on a tennis court," 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Reilly Opelka, a 21-year-old American who's seeded second in this week's $100,000 Stockton (Calif.) Challenger at the University of the Pacific's Eve Zimmerman Tennis Center, told The New York Times in 2015. "There is nothing he can't do out there."
   Mmoh saved all five break points against him against Granollers and broke serve twice, to lead 3-1 in the opening set and 6-5 in the second, in their first career meeting. Mmoh rarely ventures to the net, but with Granollers serving at 5-5, 15-30 in the second set, the American nailed a backhand volley winner and broke when Granollers sailed an inside-out forehand long on the next point. Granollers had done the same on break point against him in the first set.
   Mmoh, a chiseled 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters) and 198 pounds (90 kilograms), ultimately won with his power and athleticism.
Michael Mmoh forms a heart with his
hands after Sunday's final to signify his
love of Tiburon. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "For sure," he said afterward while riding a stationary bicycle in the gym at the Tiburon Peninsula Club to cool down. "I think it was a very good balance of serving really well, hitting my forehand really well, moving really well and passing really well.
   "I think that's what it takes to beat a guy like that. There's not just one formula to beat him -- you have to do a little bit of everything, and I stepped up when I needed to. That's how I got that break (in the second set). I came in and hit that volley. I'm pretty proud of the way I stepped up in the big moments and played my aggressive tennis."
   The 32-year-old Granollers, 6-foot-3 (1.91 meters) with an excellent all-around game, agreed with Mmoh's assessment.
   "Obviously, he's a tough player, very solid, no mistakes," said Granollers, who rose four notches to No. 100 after being ranked No. 177 at the beginning of the year. "He served good, very solid from the baseline. Yeah, was two breaks. He have more chances than me today. He deserves (to win). He played better than me today."
   After Mmoh held serve at love to close out the match, he sprawled on his back in exultation. Then he quickly rose and formed a heart with his hands in front of the near-capacity crowd of about 600 at the Tiburon Peninsula Club.
   Mmoh also reached the 2016 Tiburon final, beating Erik Crepaldi of Italy 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7) in the second round of qualifying, saving three match points against Tennys Sandgren in the first round of the main draw and one against defending champion Tim Smyczek in the semifinals before losing to Darian King of Barbados. Sandgren, who retired from that match with a lower back injury while trailing 0-2 in the third set, reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January.
   "Two-thousand-sixteen was my first run at a Challenger tournament," recalled Mmoh, who lost to eventual champion Cameron Norrie of Great Britain in last year's Tiburon quarterfinals. "I almost lost in qualies. I almost lost in the first round of the main draw.
   "That was like getting to the finals of a tour event for me at that time. That was my first big breakthrough at this level. I've won a lot of matches in Tiburon -- let's put it that way. I love coming back here."
   Mmoh and Waske stayed at their host family's house in downtown San Francisco, a 20-minute drive south of Tiburon (Spanish for "shark"), last week.
   "We had the pleasure of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge every day," Waske gushed. "When you can see San Francisco through the clouds, it's so nice."
Michael Mmoh leaps into a forehand during his 6-3, 7-5
victory on Sunday. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Mmoh was coming off the title in a $75,000 indoor tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
   "Honestly, I was not expecting to do that these two weeks," said Mmoh, who has won four Challenger singles titles, all in the United States. "I was hoping to do the best I can and rack up some wins, but to win back-to-back given the fact that one was indoors and one was outdoors, I surprised myself as well. But I'm putting in a lot of hard work with Alex, and my game is definitely ready. I just put it all out; I was pretty locked in both weeks. Good things happen when you work hard."
   The 43-year-old Waske, who peaked at No. 89 in singles in 2006 and No. 16 in doubles in 2007, said he and agent Olivier van Lindonk, who also manages Kei Nishikori and Garbine Muguruza, told Mmoh "the same thing at the beginning of the week. Winning a Challenger is great. Darian King and Tim Smyczek have won here. But you also have Sam Querrey and Jack Sock -- they go boom, boom. If you win two in a row, I feel a lot of players are realizing, now this is different. This is a different level.
   "Today in the final, that was outstanding. That was by far the best he played all week. His offensive game really came in today, smacking the forehand from the middle (of the court), being aggressive on the short balls. That was really good tennis. (He was) a little lucky on the break points because Marcel missed a couple of shots he normally makes, but I'm really happy with (Mmoh's) performance."
   Mmoh, however, will not try to win his third title in three weeks. He withdrew from this week's $150,000 Challenger in Monterrey, Mexico, where he was seeded second, because of fatigue.
   Mmoh pocketed $14,400 for winning the Tiburon singles title, raising his totals to $276,722 this year and $564,029 for his career. Granollers received $8,480 for reaching the singles final and $640 for advancing to the doubles quarterfinals, giving him $9,753,558 for his career.
   The United States leads all nations with 12 men in the top 100. Next are Spain and France. Mmoh became the third 20-year-old American in the elite group, with No. 41 Frances Tiafoe and No. 60 Taylor Fritz, and fifth overall, with No. 15 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and No. 68 Andrey Rublev of Russia. Two teenagers are ranked in the top 100: 19-year-olds Denis Shapovalov of Canada at No. 31 and Alex de Minaur of Australia at No. 38.
   Tiafoe cracked the top 100 for the first time by winning the Stockton Challenger two years ago at 18. Fritz won back-to-back Northern California Challengers three years ago at 17.
Marcel Granollers, formerly ranked in the top 20
in singles and top five in doubles, could not match
Michael Mmoh's power and athleticism. Photo by
Paul Bauman
   Granollers, also seeded first in Monterrey, attained career highs of No. 19 in singles in 2012 and No. 4 in doubles in 2013. Can Mmoh also reach the top 20 in singles?
   "Yes, for sure," declared Granollers, a two-time Grand Slam runner-up in men's doubles who has reached the fourth round in singles at the French Open three times and the U.S. Open once. "He's a hard worker; he will do it."
   Top 10?
   "Why not?" Granollers suggested. "He's 20 years old. He's (now 96) in the world. He's one of the best young players in the world."
   Granollers isn't the first accomplished Spaniard Mmoh has beaten. He knocked off then-No. 15 Roberto Bautista Agut 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-4 in the second round of the Miami Open on the ATP World Tour, the major leagues of men's tennis, in March before losing to South Korean Hyeon Chung, an Australian Open semifinalist this year, 6-1, 6-1.
   Mmoh is often compared to another 32-year-old, Gael Monfils of France. Six-foot-4 (1.93 meters) and extremely athletic, Monfils climbed to a career-high No. 6 in 2016 after reaching his second career Grand Slam semifinal in the U.S. Open. But Mmoh's idol as a kid was Roddick, an International Tennis Hall of Famer known primarily for his blistering serve.
   "I always loved his whole persona and everything about him -- the way he played, the way he competed, his mental toughness and his personality," Mmoh said in a January 2017 story on thetennischannel.com.
   It all began in Saudi Arabia, where Tony Mmoh had a sports marketing business and met Geraldine O'Reilly, a nurse and avid tennis fan, while coaching the Saudi Davis Cup team.
   Michael was named after Michael Jordan. Tony had become infatuated with the NBA legend while attending St. Augustine's College (now St. Augustine's University) in North Carolina and becoming a U.S. citizen. Tony now lives in Atlanta. Geraldine lives in Australia, where she's a citizen, but plans to move to the United States, Michael said.
   Michael caught the basketball bug as a child before devoting himself to tennis.
   "When I was 6, I wanted to become a basketball player," said Michael, a big fan of the NBA Wizards and NFL Redskins because Tony's family is from Washington, D.C. "My dad got me into tennis when I was 3. Originally, I didn't really like it, and I loved basketball. Right after that, I realized -- given that my dad was a professional tennis player -- it would just be easier to play tennis and have that type of mentor.
Qualifiers Hans Hach Verdugo, left, of Mexico and Luke Saville of Aus-
tralia won the doubles title in their first tournament together. Photo by
Paul Bauman
   "I ended up loving tennis. That's the most important thing. That's the thing with my half-siblings. My dad tried to get them to play tennis, but they just didn't love the sport. I feel like I really love the sport -- that's why I work so hard."
   Michael moved from Saudi Arabia to Bradenton, Fla., to train at the IMG Academy. He does not speak Arabic.
   "I went to a school with Americans and Europeans," explained Mmoh, who is still based in Bradenton. "Obviously, my parents didn't speak Arabic, so I literally don't speak a word of it."
   Mmoh peaked at No. 2 in the world junior rankings in 2015 after reaching the boys singles semifinals in the French Open and boys singles quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. He won the 2016 USTA Boys' 18 National Championship in Kalamazoo, Mich., to earn an automatic wild card into the men's main draw at the U.S. Open and lost to hard-hitting Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 in the opening round. Then came his breakthrough in Tiburon.
   Tony Mmoh could not be reached for comment, but in the story on thetennischannel.com, he said: "I have tried to talk to Michael in terms of where he wants to be and what it takes for him to get there. The experiences I have had on the tour I have talked to him about. He is a very intelligent young man and very determined. I see that in him. He is trying hard to be successful, and that makes me proud."
   Tony advises Michael to be a predator on the court.
   "He always tells me to be a lion out there, to really put the hurt on guys," Michael said. "In the past, sometimes I would let guys put the hurt on me. I was so good at defense and whatnot, so he always told me to be a lion and take it to guys and really intimidate them by the way you play and how aggressive you are. I would say that's the best thing he ever told me because that's the way I'm going to become a top player."
   In the Tiburon doubles final, qualifiers Hans Hach Verdugo of Mexico and Luke Saville of Australia beat unseeded Gerard Granollers, Marcel's younger brother, and Pedro Martinez of Spain 6-3, 6-2. Hach Verdugo and Saville, who played in their first tournament together, split $6,200. Saville won the 2011 Wimbledon boys singles title.
   Here are the completed Tiburon singles and doubles draws.

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