After winning the USTA boys’ 18s national championship back in August, Michael Mmoh’s parting gift was a trip to New York City.
The American teenager, who soared as high as the No. 2 junior in the world, also received a berth in the US Open’s main draw, opposite Frenchman Jeremy Chardy.
Mmoh is a terrific athlete with dazzling retrieving skills that have been compared to those of Gael Monfils. But looking a tad tentative, he got schooled by Chardy 6-4, 6-4, 6-1.
All things considered, it might have been the best result possible. Chardy, a journeyman with a career record just under .500 and a single tour-level title in more than a decade as a professional, preyed on Mmoh’s defensive posture.
“Monumental,” was how Mmoh recently described it. “You can’t play tennis just hoping your opponent is going to miss. You have to have an aggressive mentality to win. Andy Murray didn’t win many Slams because at crunch time he’d revert to his defensive ways. Look at (Novak) Djokovic in the US Open final. He was very defensive in that final against (Stan) Wawrinka — that’s not going to get it done.”
His coach, Glenn Weiner, seized on that teachable moment.
“It’s been in our vocabulary to make him more aggressive,” Weiner explained. “In that respect, Chardy was a great learning experience. We simplified the message to: ‘How do we make you just a little more dangerous?’
“We followed that game plan through the fall. After the summer he had, did I expect him to start winning like he did? No. I have to say I like where’s headed.”
This is not a random assessment. Weiner, who has played and coached at IMG Academy for nearly 25 years, coached No. 5-ranked Kei Nishikori for three years in Bradenton, Florida.
After a terrific stretch run at the Challenger level, the ATP’s equivalent of Triple A baseball, Mmoh has another Grand Slam main-draw appointment in January. He accumulated the most points in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Champaign, Illinois to win the USTA’s Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge.
Mmoh, 18, is one of five American teenagers to win an ATP Challenger Tour title this year, joining Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov, who won in Columbus, Ohio, a couple of weeks ago. Eight American men aged 20 and younger — the aforementioned five, plus Jared Donaldson, Ernesto Escobedo and Noah Rubin — are ranked among the ATP World Tour’s top 204 players.
There’s your short list for future U.S. male tennis stars hoping to follow in the tradition of former top 10 Americans Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish and John Isner. They are all contenders for the Next Gen ATP Finals next November in Milan, a new event that will feature the top 21-and-under singles players.
The last time there more than six Americans under the age of 21 in the year-end top 200 was 1991, when there were seven. That group included Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang — all future Grand Slam winners.
“The competition really motivates you,” Mmoh said. “When Taylor or Francis is doing well, you might be ranked like 300, while they’re 170 and winning a Challenger. You don’t want to be the guy falling behind.
“It’s been a constant battle for a long time. At the end of the day, it’s huge for American tennis, and us, too.”
That Mmoh is playing under the U.S. flag is something of an upset, considering his unusual provenance.
He was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to a Nigerian-born father and an Irish-born mother. Tony and Geraldine (O’Reilly) met in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s when she was a nurse and he worked in sports marketing. Tony had moved to the United States to play tennis at St. Augustine’s and eventually became an American citizen. He was ranked as high as No. 105 among ATP players and played doubles at the Seoul Olympics for Nigeria. With Geraldine, he raised the family in both Washington, D.C., and Saudi Arabia.
Michael Mmoh was 12 years old when he got his first big break in tennis, playing at the Eddie Herr at IMG in Bradenton. He got “trashed” in the final by Duckhee Lee of Korea but was discovered by the IMG staff and eventually offered a scholarship. Mmoh has progressed steadily ever since.
With his ranking in the mid-400s, he began the year playing Futures events and trying to qualify for Challengers. Receiving a wild card in Miami, he forced rising German star Alexander Zverev — also 18 at the time — to two tiebreakers before losing in the first round. On the downside, Mmoh blew a 3-0 double-break lead in the second set.
An elbow injury cost him April and May, prompting a weeklong visit and a heartfelt discussion with his father, who now lives in Atlanta.
“I was struggling after the injury,” Michael said, “and I wanted a different insight into my game. My dad was a top-100 player and had some ups and downs in his career. He gave me some useful words, and I started playing well.
“When I’m not confident, I’m not the most aggressive player. I use my athletic ability to retrieve a lot of balls. In today’s pro game, guys are hitting the s— out of the ball. Getting a lot of balls back — that can be your Plan B. But to be successful, you want to be in control of the points.”
Weiner helped Mmoh make another adjustment, taking a subtle hitch out of his long forehand stroke, which helped take critical time away from opponents. In late September, Mmoh won three matches to qualify for the main draw at the Tiburon, California, Challenger. He survived three match points in a first-round match against Tennys Sandgren and won when Sandgren retired in the third set. Mmoh won seven straight matches to get to his first Challenger final, where he lost to Darian King.
In November, Mmoh went one step further, winning the Challenger in Knoxville. Reaching the quarterfinals a week later in Champaign got him into the top 200 for the first time, his overriding goal for 2016.
And now he gets to visit Australia, a place that feels like home. His mother, since divorced from Tony, has an Australian passport, and his aunt has lived there for years. The first Grand Slam that Mmoh watched in person was in Melbourne, as a 7-year-old in 2005, the year Marat Safin won the title.
After Australia, Mmoh’s ranking should allow him into the main draw of most Challengers and qualifying for the remaining Grand Slams and some ATP events. For the next month, he and Weiner will work on strengthening his already strong serve by hitting targeted spots more often.
“It comes down to how good he wants to be,” Weiner said. “One thing I’ve been working on with him is routines and setting a good example. I’ve seen moments where there is a glimpse of some special tennis. Glimpses are not good enough.
“We have to have a higher percentage. It needs to be more of an everyday thing. I believe he can be a great player.”
So does Mmoh, who lists reaching the top 10 and winning a major among his top career goals. For 2017?
“I’d have to say, I think the year-end top 100 is realistic for me,” Mmoh said. “The main thing I need to do to improve my game is be more unpredictable.
“My game’s there to do the damage.”
-Culled from USA TODAY