Friday, September 28, 2018

Mmoh tops Paul in dramatic clash of U.S. prospects

No. 5 seed Michael Mmoh held off wild card Tommy Paul 7-6 (7), 2-6,
6-3 today in the quarterfinals of the $100,000 Wells Fargo Tiburon
Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
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   TIBURON, Calif. -- If today's match between Michael Mmoh and Tommy Paul is any indication, American fans have a lot to look forward to.
   In a dramatic battle between two of the United States' many men's prospects, the fifth-seeded Mmoh held off Paul, a wild card, 7-6 (7), 2-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the $100,000 Wells Fargo Tiburon Challenger on a chilly evening at the Tiburon Peninsula Club.
   Mmoh saved four set points and Paul two in the first set, which lasted 1 hour, 13 minutes. Mmoh bolted to a 5-0 lead in the third set before Paul reeled off the next three games to make matters interesting. Mmoh needed five match points, including four in the last game, to prevail in 2 hours, 37 minutes.
   Mmoh, 20, said it was the highest-quality match in which he has ever played.
   "I've played a lot of great players, and that was a really high level," he asserted.
   Mmoh attributed his victory to "mental toughness. I think he sometimes went through waves in the match where he was super locked-in and he wouldn't miss a ball, then at the beginning of the third set where he literally couldn't make a ball for five games. I think I was mentally locked in the entire time. I think that was the difference."
   Mmoh improved to 3-0 against the 21-year-old Paul, who was not available for comment. Each match has gone three sets.
   "I think Tommy Paul is going to be a name to remember in years to come just like my name, and I think we're going to have a lot of great battles in the future as well," said Mmoh, who was born in  Saudi Arabia to Nigerian pro Tony Mmoh and an Irish mother and named after Michael Jordan. "I'm looking forward to it."
Tommy Paul saved four match points before
succumbing. Photo by Paul Bauman
   And it's hardly just Mmoh, ranked No. 108, and Paul, ranked No. 343 after reaching a career-high No. 149 in January and then missing 4 1/2 months with a right elbow injury.
   The United States has four players 23 or younger in the top 100 -- No. 41 Frances Tiafoe (20), No. 62 Taylor Fritz (20), No. 80 Mackenzie McDonald (23) from Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area and No. 99 Jared Donaldson (21) -- and 11 more in the top 350. Two of them -- No. 138 Noah Rubin and No. 223 Christopher Eubanks, both 22 -- met earlier today in Tiburon.
   The 5-foot-9 (1.75-meter) Rubin, seeded sixth, beat the 6-foot-7 (2.01-meter) Eubanks 6-4, 6-3 in a matchup of the shortest and tallest players in the draw.
   "I don't think there are too many of us (little guys) left (on the pro tours)," Rubin said with a laugh. "The small guys coming out now are like 6-1 (1.85 meters). That's considered small, so 5-9 is incredibly small. It's tough, but at the same time, I'm willing to work to get where I need to be."
   Beating giants is nothing new for Rubin, a product of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York. He toppled 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) John Isner 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the second round in Washington, D.C., on the elite ATP World Tour this summer for his first victory over a top-10 player. Rubin then lost to 20-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev.
   Asked how he beats players like Isner and Eubanks in an era of power, Rubin said: "I think my power is underestimated. For a guy my size, I can come up with the goods. I can still attack if needed, but when I need to dig down balls for six straight games, my legs are able to do it. It's kind of the best of both worlds. I might not get the aces on big points, but at the same time, I'm going to steal some points."
   In Saturday's semifinals, which follow an 11 a.m. doubles match, Rubin will face top-seeded Marcel Granollers of Spain for the first time, and Mmoh will play Australian alternate James Duckworth in a matchup of the last two Challenger champions.
Tommy Paul tries to stay warm during one of Michael Mmoh's
two medical timeouts. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Duckworth won a $50,000 tournament in Cary, N.C., two weeks ago in his comeback from five operations (three on his right foot and one each on his right shoulder and right elbow), and Mmoh triumphed in last week's $75,000 tourney in Columbus (Ohio). In their only previous meeting, Duckworth won 6-3, 6-4 two years ago in the first round of qualifying for Winston-Salem on the ATP World Tour.
   "He was just coming out of juniors then, so he wasn't playing anywhere near the level he's playing at now," Duckworth said after beating Marcelo Arevalo of El Salvador 7-5, 6-3. "He's obviously pretty confident coming off a win in Columbus."
   Granollers, who reached career highs of No. 19 in singles in 2012 and No. 4 in doubles in 2013, dismissed John-Patrick Smith of Australia 6-2, 6-3.
   Smith, a 29-year-old left-hander, had beaten the 32-year-old Granollers 6-3, 6-4 on grass in the second round of qualifying at Wimbledon in June.
   "Every match is different," explained Granollers, now ranked No. 104. "At Wimbledon, he played a really good match. Today I served very good, I was aggressive, and I was very focused on the return also. I knew he's a great server, so I'm very happy to be in the semifinals."
   The first set of the Mmoh-Paul match featured two long, breathtaking rallies, including one on the last point that Mmoh won with a spectacular backhand passing shot down the line to elicit a roar from the crowd.
   Mmoh said he had "no idea" how many balls he and Paul, who won the Columbus doubles title with Peter Polansky of Canada, hit during the rallies.
   "It was just a blur, honestly. I don't even remember a lot of the points that I played. Every single point was a grind, and the whole match was a battle," said Mmoh, who reached his first Challenger final in Tiburon two years ago as a qualifier.
Top-seeded Marcel Granollers of Spain exults
during his 6-2, 6-3 victory over John-Patrick
Smith of Australia. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Mmoh lost his serve in the opening game of the second set on a double fault, and Paul coasted the rest of the set.
   "I didn't feel like I could have hung in that set and been ready for the third," Mmoh said. "I was competing in the second set but getting ready for the third. I knew I had to ramp it up, and that's what I did."
   But Paul wouldn't go quietly. He came up with one tremendous shot after another on the first four match points, prompting Mmoh to yell at his coach, Alexander Waske, in frustration. Finally, Mmoh pounded a service winner to end matters.
   "I felt like I was playing just as good when it went to 5-3 as when I went up 5-0," Mmoh said. "I didn't think I did anything wrong, especially on all those match points. I thought I did the right thing and played well. He just came up with the goods."
   Mmoh, a right-hander with a two-handed backhand, took medical timeouts at 3-2 in the first set for a dried skin on his left little finger that had split and after the second set for a tight right shoulder.
   Paul, meanwhile, continually patted his lower back and tweaked his left ankle in the second game of the third set but never called for the trainer in the match.
   Here are the Tiburon singles and doubles draws and Saturday's schedule. The tournament is being streamed liveAdmission is $30 on Saturday and $35 on Sunday ($55 for both days).
   Here are the singles qualifying draw and Saturday's schedule in the $100,000 Stockton (Calif.) Challenger.

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