Mmoh Clinches Australian Open Wild Card with Giron's Win Over Opelka; Donaldson, Klahn, Baker and Eubanks Also Advance to Quarterfinals at Champaign Challenger
©Colette Lewis 2016--
I've returned from my quick trip to the $50,000 ATP Champaign Challenger and unlike last year, when the USTA's Australian Open Wild Card Challenge went down to the final match there, this year it was decided today in Michael Mmoh's favor, when he beat No. 3 seed Stefan Kozlov 6-1, 6-4 and Reilly Opelka lost to qualifier Marcos Giron 6-2, 7-6(4).
Mmoh's win over Kozlov was not as easy as the score would indicate, although the first set was similar in dominance to Mmoh's 6-0, 6-3 semifinal win last week at the Knoxville Challenger. Kozlov, who is now winless in their four 2016 meetings, got off to a slow start, with errors and a low percentage(40) of first serves resulting in a quick first set. Kozlov looked alternately frustrated, angry and resigned to another loss after Mmoh took a 3-0 lead, but that didn't continue when the second set began.
Kozlov held to start the second set and Mmoh was then forced to save four break points in a nine-deuce game that might not have been pretty, but was undeniably tense and often entertaining.
"That was one of the tougher sets I'd played in a long time," said Mmoh, "especially in that second game. Deuce after deuce. That explained the second set perfectly. I'm really happy with the way I handled it, with the way he was playing."
Kozlov dropped his serve and Mmoh held for a 3-1 lead, but Kozlov dug in, broke Mmoh for the only time in the match, then held, saving a break point to take a 4-3 lead.
In the next game, Mmoh was down a break point at 30-40, but chose that point, with all the momentum pointing in Kozlov's direction, to serve and volley. Mmoh actually didn't have to volley, with Kozlov missing the return, muttering to himself about Mmoh's unexpected tactic. Kozlov just missed wide on the next point, giving Mmoh a game point, and Mmoh converted it with an impressive combination of speed and touch.
Kozlov hit a fine cross court volley that very few players would have a chance to reach, but Mmoh not only reached it, but guided a down the line forehand winner deep as Kozlov scrambled back to retrieve it, to no avail.
"Definitely those kind of points change the match completely," said the 18-year-old from Bradenton, Florida. "I felt like he had some momentum at that point. He started off slow in that 4-4 game, maybe because of that, I don't know, but for sure that gave me a boost."
Kozlov went down 15-40 in the next game, saved one break point, but not the second, when Mmoh showed off his improved net game with a backhand volley winner. Earlier in the point, Mmoh had fallen down deep behind the baseline but managed to get up to the short angled shot by Kozlov and finish with the soft backhand volley.
Mmoh had felt something in his left wrist after the fall however, and he asked for the trainer and took a medical timeout. Serving for the match at 5-4, he held at love, letting out a long loud c'mon after a forehand winner clinched it.
"I caught my fall with my left hand and kind of hyperextended my elbow somehow," said Mmoh, who was heading for another visit with the trainer after the match. "I kind of did a pushup, off balance in an awkward position to get myself back up, and I think something is going on, but adrenaline got me through."
Mmoh didn't know the win would be the Australian Open wild card clincher, because Reilly Opelka, another contender, was playing a night match, but he was once again happy with his level.
"It was an unbelievable level," said Mmoh, who has now won seven straight matches at the Challenger level. "I thought I was playing really well and I thought he was bringing it. If somebody looks at the score they're going to see like, oh, Mmoh crushed him, but it was not the case, it was not the case. It was a very tough match."
Kozlov was eliminated from the Australian Open wild card race with the loss, and only Jared Donaldson, the top seed, and Opelka in his way.
Donaldson defeated qualifier Ryan Shane 6-1, 6-4, so he is technically still in the running, but he needs to win the title to beat out Mmoh, and if Donaldson does win the title, he'll return to the ATP Top 100 and won't need the wild card.
I was unable to stay for Giron's win over Opelka, but I did have an opportunity to talk with Georgia Tech junior Chris Eubanks after he reached his first Challenger quarterfinal with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Sekou Bangoura.
Last week, Eubanks got on the plane in Atlanta expecting to be an alternate in qualifying, but he received some good news when he landed.
"I missed the entry deadline," said the rail-thin 20-year-old from Atlanta. "The whole ATP player deadline thing is kind of new to me, so I asked Stephen Amritraj [USTA Director of Collegiate Tennis] if there was a way I could get in qualies. He said to sign in, so I came, prepared to play qualies, and when I landed I had a text message saying I got a main [draw wild card], so I was pretty excited about that."
Eubanks, who beat No. 7 seed Noah Rubin in the first round, has a simple explanation for his success this week.
"I've just committed to my game," Eubanks said. "I'm focusing a little bit more on shot tolerance. I'm usually one-two punch, but at this level, and even the higher level college, it's not that easy and you're going to have to try to construct a point, hit two, three, four big balls to get one where you can finally end the point on. So I think I'm kind of committed to that, not to force things, and I think it's working out pretty well, especially with the serve."
Although Eubanks had only seven aces in three sets, he did get 74% of his first serves in, and and his serve came up big when he had to dig out of a 15-40 hole after breaking for a 3-1 lead in the final set.
"After I got the break I went down early, trying to rush things, getting a little bit of the juices flowing," said Eubanks. "I had to take my time, calm down, find my rhythm. Serving for me is a confidence thing, and I feel when I go up after it, when I make contact, I know it's going in."
Mmoh and Eubanks will meet for the first time in the quarterfinals.
"I've been to Atlanta to hit with him a couple of times," Mmoh said. "So I know how he plays, and I'm decently good friends with him. He's playing really well, hitting the ball big and hitting the ball clean, serving well, big game, and on these indoor courts, you never know how it's going to turn out. But I like my chances given the way I'm playing."
Earlier in the day, qualifier Bradley Klahn advanced with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Tennys Sandgren, continuing his remarkably successful return to competition after 21 months out due to injuries. He will play Donaldson next.
Brian Baker defeated Liam Broady of Great Britain 6-4, 6-1 and will face No. 6 seed Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium, who beat Mitchell Krueger 7-6(5), 6-2. Giron's next opponent is No. 2 seed and defending champion Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland, who came back to beat wild card Jared Hiltzik 1-6, 6-1, 7-5 on the former Illinois All-American's collegiate home courts at the Atkins Tennis Center.