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Steve Flink: Michael Mmoh Looking to Elevate His Game

Examine the Emirates ATP Rankings in search of Americans, and you will find some very encouraging signs. Seven American men reside among the top 100: John Isner at No. 19, Jack Sock at No. 23, Sam Querrey at No. 31, Stevie Johnson at No. 33, Taylor Fritz at No. 76, Donald Young at No. 88 and Ryan Harrison at No. 90.

But just as impressively, eleven more are stationed in the top 200, and the last of those competitors is none other than Michael Mmoh, an 18-year-old with high aspirations, realistic goals and a deep determination to succeed on the highest level.

Mmoh has made immense strides as of late. On September 12, 2016, he was ranked No. 379 in the world, but now this teenager has climbed significantly up to No. 198. In the middle of summer, he secured the prestigious National 18 Championships in the renowned junior locale of Kalamazoo, Michigan, earning a wildcard into the U.S. Open. Thereafter, he came on strong. At the end of the season, largely on the strength of a Challenger tournament triumph in Knoxville, Tennessee, Mmoh garnered another much coveted wildcard, this one taking him into the upcoming Australian Open. Many authorities on American tennis are bullish on Mmoh, believing he is a very bright prospect and a player with a good chance to break into the world's top twenty in a couple of years.

For the time being, however, he is delighted to be hitting his short term targets, knowing that he must take it step by step at this stage of his career. We spoke by telephone a few days before Thanksgiving, and Mmoh came across as thoughtful, mature and even introspective. We started by talking about Kalamazoo, which served as a springboard for the rest of his 2016 campaign. As he recalls, "There were a lot of expectations coming into it. I had not been playing the best of tennis. I was still recovering from a three month injury to my right elbow so my confidence wasn't high. Even though you are not playing Challenger level [opponents] at Kalamazoo, getting eight wins in a row does huge things for your confidence. It was a big bonus for me."

How did he feel about being the clearcut favorite, and realizing simultaneously that winning the tournament would guarantee him the wildcard into the U.S. Open? He responds, "I was the sole favorite in Kalamazoo and there were a lot of eyes on me. I think I did a good job coping with it and I was just kind of locked in and focussed on the opportunity I had. There were some tough matches in that tournament. Even in the first round I played a random guy from California who barely got into the tournament and I won like 6-4, 6-4. Definitely the U.S. Open and the wildcard was the main reason I played Kalamazoo. I actually had that in the front of my head. That was the goal and it motivated me. I used it as a challenge. I was playing against guys who I was supposed to beat and I used that as a challenge rather than a threat."

At the U.S. Open, he drew the experienced Frenchman Jeremy Chardy in the first round, coming up against a 29-year-old with explosive talent and considerable experience. Chardy prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 but Mmoh gained an education in that encounter that will serve him well, both short and long term. As he reflects, "This guy in my opinion was one of the best tennis players I have ever played against, including practicing with Kei Nishikori and Tommy Haas. I have never seen anything like Chardy's power. I mean, off the forehand side and off his serve, he is one of the biggest hitters on the tour. That was a shock to me. I am not saying he is the same caliber as Nishikori, but my point is that Chardy has not gotten to the top 20 in the world and that shows you what a tough sport it is. The match was tougher than the score indicates. I got broken in the first and second sets when I was serving at 4-5 so I could easily have gone to 5-5 and then you never know if it goes to a tiebreaker. I don't think I played terrible. It was a tough matchup and a good learning experience for my first Grand Slam. I am going to use it for my next one in Australia."

After the Open, Mmoh made it to the final of the Challenger event in Tiburon, California, escaping time and time again when his back was to the wall, starting with a narrow 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7) win in the second round of qualifying over Erik Crepaldi. In the first round of the main draw, he came precariously close to a straight set loss. Countryman Tennys Sandgren served for the match at 6-4, 5-4, 40-0, triple match point. Somehow, Mmoh emerged unscathed. He came back to take the second set and led 2-0 in third, when Sandgren had to retire. Mmoh subsequently upended Stefan Kozlov and Bjorn Fratangelo in straight sets before stopping Tim Smyczek 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 in the penultimate round. After removing those four fellow Americans, Mmoh was beaten by Darian King.

"That was crucial and monumental," he recollects. "I almost lost in the qualies and then I saved those match points against Tennys. I ended up winning that match and getting to the finals. You never know how the year might have turned out without that week, but that happens a lot in tennis. I am really thankful I could come through and get to my first Challenger final, which eventually led to me winning my first Challenger."

He was referring to his groundbreaking triumph in Knoxville, the middle of the three Challenger events using a points system to determine the wildcard winner for Australia. In that tournament Mmoh was at his zenith and did not drop a set on his way to the final, taking apart Smyczek, Austin Krajicek and Kozlov before cutting down Peter Polansky 7-5, 2-6, 6-1 in the title round. Recalling that pivotal week, Mmoh points out, "Everything was going my way. I was playing well and confident. I liked my chances in each match that I played. And I was very motivated compared to some of the other guys that were really tired after a long year while I was fresh. I knew the opportunity I would get, which was to make it into the Australian Open and to be top 200. I was extremely motivated and things were just flowing for me."

Mmoh had lost in the round of 16 at Charlottesville, Virginia to Reilly Opelka. In the last of the three tournaments, he got to the quarterfinals in Champaign, Illinois and had to default, but by then he had secured the wildcard.

"It was very interesting going into that last week in Champaign," he muses. "I think I had 87 points and Reilly had 80, so if I would have lost first round there and he would have won a round, he would have taken the wildcard. So it was tricky. My abdominals were hurting, too. If I was not going for the wildcard I probably would have pulled out of the tournament. So I stuck with it, won two rounds and that kind of put the pressure on Reilly because I think at that point he had to get to the semis. He ended up losing in the second round."

As Mmoh turns his attention to the Australian Open, he is upbeat and looking forward to competing in a second straight major as a wildcard. As he puts it, "The experience from playing Chardy at the Open is going to help me out big time. I know what it feels like to play a big best of five set match. Going to Australia, nothing is going to intimidate me. I like the way I am playing and I am a lot more confident now than I was going into the U.S. Open. I think I have what it takes to do some damage."

How does he feel about the way his game stacks up with other young Americans like Fritz, Noah Rubin, Frances Tiafoe and Kozlov? Mmoh replies, "Fritz is an unbelievable ball striker and probably one of the most aggressive players on tour. I bring to the table a different aspect. I am a really good athlete and I can make it tough on you by not missing and retrieving a lot of balls but at the same time I feel I have pretty good power. I think I have the all around game where I can move really well, play well off both sides and come in if I need to. I like trying to be a well rounded player. There are a lot of things I can improve but my game as a whole is pretty good all around. I want to improve my serve and make it more dangerous, make it a pure weapon. It is a good serve but there is a lot of room for improvement. I also am looking to become a more aggressive tennis player on a daily basis."

Mmoh grew up in Saudi Arabia, the son of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother. His dad Tony was once ranked just outside the top 100 in the world and he got Michael started with the game when he was three. At 13, Mmoh left Saudi Arabia to live in the U.S. and train at IMG Academy. As Tony Mmoh recalls regarding his son's evolution, "Michael won the Orange Bowl 12-and-under at age 12 so he was already showing how good he was. IMG decided to give him a scholarship to come over to the States."

Tony Mmoh—now living in Atlanta and running a sports management company— has played a significant role in the development of his son's tennis over the years. As he explains, "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."

Michael Mmoh says of his father, "You always need a parent to give you guidance. My father has been a great mentor for me throughout the years. There are a lot of ups and downs in tennis and he has always been with me through those experiences. He has been overseeing me and my tennis for a long time and this year alone he has given me a lot of beneficiary tips. His mentoring is a key for my success."

But the full time coach for Mmoh in recent years has been Glenn Weiner, a 40-year-old once ranked No. 119 in the world who has been coaching at IMG Academy Bollettieri Tennis Program since 2006. As Mmoh clarifies, "He has been by my side the past three years and Glenn is a huge help. I haven't had that many coaches in my career but he has been by far the best that ever has coached me. I am really thankful for him and hopefully our relationship will continue to grow. I hope we will be working together for many more years."

Meanwhile, Mmoh feels grateful to be surrounded by such a sparkling cast of fellow Americans with bright futures and lofty goals. As he says, "We all motivate each other and whenever one of us is doing better it pushes the others. They are great friends, great competitors and great rivals. I would say Frances Tiafoe has always been my best friend. We are just similar personalities and we are cool people and we like to joke around. We have always had a great bond and are extremely close because of it."

Looking at his compatriots as players, Mmoh asserts, "Fritz is doing the best. I have played him twice and he is really tough. He just owns the baseline, he has so much power and he is relentless in his offense. I would say he is definitely the guy to beat out of all of us. Kozlov has never been an easy match for me. There are always tricky points when you play him. He is really talented and a very good player with the ability to decipher out matches. Fortunately I have been on the winning side a lot recently against him but the matches are not easy and we will be playing a lot more."

To be sure, the Americans are his friends and their camaraderie is apparent. Mmoh is spurred on by them and vice versa. But he is competing in an international sport and is influenced by players from different countries. One leading competitor he admires is Gael Monfils, because they are alike in many ways. As Mmoh explains, "I really look up to him because we are similar players and similar athletes. We have similar strengths and weaknesses so if there is anybody I can learn from to see what he is doing right and what he is doing wrong, it is Monfils. I see him in the locker room sometimes and he will be like, 'Hey, how are you?', and I say, 'Hey' but we have never had the chance to have a real conversation, discussing matters or whatever."

As a kid, however, Mmoh idolized a player who happens to be the last American man to win a major singles title. That man, of course, is Andy Roddick, who ruled at the U.S. Open back in 2003, concluded that season at No,. 1 in the world, and led the U.S., to their last Davis Cup triumph in 2007. As Mmoh says, "Andy Roddick was my idol growing up. I always loved his whole persona and everything about him: the way he played, the way he competed, his mental toughness and his personality. I loved everything about him. I also have great respect for the Djokovic's and Federer's in their primes and was inspired by them."

Soon enough, Mmoh will be inspiring others with his speed, sparkle and athletism. Looking toward 2017, he is excited about a chance to qualify for the first ever Next Gen ATP Finals, which will be held in Milan from November 7-11. This will be an eight player 21-and-Under tournament for the best in that age category, with seven qualifying automatically after an Emirates Race to Milan". The last spot will be given to a wildcard. But first things first; Mmoh will make his debut in January at the Australian Open. He says, "I definitely want to do some damage in Melbourne and then the rest of the year I want to continue to do some damage. I want to maybe end the year inside the top 100. That is my goal. It is a constant battle. Every single day you are out on the tennis court and you have got to perform and that is what we all deal with. I exceeded my expectations this year. I wasn't expecting to win so many matches and end the year inside the top 200 so I am blessed to have done it."

Perhaps this gifted individual is being too modest. Tony Mmoh believes his son might make even more substantial progress in 2017 than Michael is envisioning. He projects, "If we strategize the right way before the Australian Open and beyond, towards the end of the year Michael should break into the top 70 and the goal might be for him to get into the top 50. I believe he can do that. He is disciplined, he doesn't go offbeat and he eats well. He has got the right mentality, the talent and the agility. He has got everything going for him. He will represent the sport very well. For Michael, the sky is the limit."

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