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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mmoh, Opelka, Kozlov Advance, Rehab Buddies Klahn and Giron Move into Second Round at Champaign Challenger

©Colette Lewis 2016--
Champaign, IL--

My brief annual visit to the ATP Challenger in Champaign gave me an opportunity to catch up with a host of American players, and when top seed Jared Donaldson defeated qualifier Daniel Cox of Great Britain 6-4, 6-3 to close out Tuesday's action and the first round of play, 13 US men had advanced.

The past two Challenger champions, Reilly Opelka, who won Charlottesville two weeks ago and Michael Mmoh, who won Knoxville last week, are leading the USTA's Australian Open Wild Card Challenge at the moment, each with 87 points.  Mmoh defeated former Tennessee All-American Mikelis Libietis of Latvia 6-1, 6-4 and Opelka picked up a win over Great Britain's Ed Corrie, the former Texas Longhorn, 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-4.

Both Opelka and Mmoh said their goals at the start of the fall season was to make it into the 2017 Australian Open qualifying, and with their titles, both have already accomplished that.

"My goal was to get into qualies, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about main draw at this point," Mmoh said. "I'm already in the lead, and hopefully Reilly might have a tough one.  He's one of my best friends, but I'm going to have to root against him."

Mmoh said his year turned around when he won Kalamazoo.

"I was definitely struggling with confidence after my injury, lost a lot of matches and wasn't playing the best," said the 18-year-old from Bradenton Florida. "Kalamazoo changed that big time. Even if you're not playing people on the Challenger circuit, you're getting seven wins in a row, which is a huge boost for your confidence. I was playing really well in Kalamazoo, maybe not well enough to win a Challenger, but really well. Beating Vasil [Kirkov] in the final, in straight sets, in such a big match, with such high expectations, I was pretty impressed with that."

Mmoh said he thought he got lucky in reaching the final of the $100,000 Tiburon Challenger at the beginning of October, saving match points in the first round, but could see his confidence growing from that result and his Stockton Challenger semifinal.

"Last week was a huge step," Mmoh said. "I was really happy with the way I was playing last week, and I never really expected to win a Challenger. I'm really surprised with the way I'm playing now and super excited to win my first Challenger."

When he completed his win over Corrie in an evening match, No. 8 seed Opelka tied Mmoh in the Australian Open wild card race, which counts the best two results in the three Challengers. Opelka could not gain any points last week in Knoxville, pulling out with shoulder fatigue.

"It was huge for me," the 19-year-old from Palm Coast Florida said of his first Challenger title. "It did beat up the body a little bit. Obviously I haven't been competing consistently this year with my foot injuries, so when I came back to play that many physical matches, it's normal. The shoulder was just dead, it wasn't anything serious, but it didn't make sense for me to push it to play Knoxville at 50 percent and risk playing here at 50 percent."

Opelka has been impressed with the level of Mmoh's play, and believes Mmoh has an edge in the wild card race.

"My main goal was to be in qualies," Opelka said. "I think Mmoh deserves it anyway. He's playing better tennis than me. He is much more fit to play three out of five sets than me. I think one hundred percent he's the guy to beat, that's why he's at the top. If I get it great, but I think he deserves it the most."

Donaldson and Stefan Kozlov can also still claim the wild card with a title, depending on what Opelka and Mmoh do this week.  No. 3 seed Kozlov, who defeated Austin Krajicek 6-4, 7-6(3), plays Mmoh tomorrow, and the 18-year-old from Florida must win that to remain in contention. Mmoh has won their past three meetings this year however, including a 6-0, 6-3 decision in the semifinals last week in Knoxville.

Opelka's opponent in the second round is qualifier Marcos Giron, who defeated Sam Barry of Ireland 6-3, 6-4.

Giron returned to action this fall after surgery on both hips last winter, but he's been happy with his level of play after so much time away from competition.

"I really haven't had any setbacks, which is great," said the 23-year-old from Thousand Oaks California, who won the 2014 NCAA singles title. "It's really been fun and it puts it in perspective when you get hurt like that and take so much time off. It's been great being back on the court and just competing again. And winning a Future(last month in Berkeley), that's really awesome. I wasn't coming out with any pressure, but that really gave me confidence. I know my game is there and I can compete with good players, but beating Ruben Bemelmans, Connor Smith, Rhyne Williams, and going three sets was big. It was good to see that mentally, physically, I was still there."

Giron is now 12-3 on the USTA Pro Circuit since returning to competition, while Bradley Klahn, another NCAA champion, has yet to experience defeat after 21 months away from the game.  Klahn, who won three qualifying matches in this, his first tournament back, advanced to the second round when No. 5 seed Sam Groth of Australia retired after losing the first set 7-6(5).

Klahn was not able to convert any of the six break points he had early in the set, and he didn't take advantage of the two set points he had serving at 6-3 in the tiebreaker, but he handcuffed Groth with a passing shot at 5-6, and indulging in some emotion for the first time, gave a c'mon and a fist pump.  Seconds later Groth, who had had a trainer on court earlier in the match, retired.

Klahn said his long layoff helped him with perspective, and he looked at the glass as half full when he failed to convert his break chances.

"I think I've done a really good job managing my emotions through the first four matches," said the 26-year-old from Poway California, who won the 2010 NCAA title while a sophomore at Stanford. "There's going to be nerves--I haven't played a competitive match in 21 months--I'm going get tight, lose some games I shouldn't, or my decision making is not going to be there, but if I beat myself up for it, it's not really productive. There's two ways to look at losing six break points: you've lost six, or you've been able to generate six break points. The big thing was to take care of my serve, which I did."

Klahn and Giron shared the same physical therapist, so they spent a great deal of time together earlier this year, and also ended up coaching against each other, with Giron a volunteer assistant at his alma mater UCLA, and Klahn joining the Cardinal during the Pac-12 season.

"We were seeing each other four days a week for three hours," Klahn said. "Our focus was trying to get back, obviously, but we had time to hang out, go to the beach. We spent a lot of time together, coached against each other. His Bruins got us three times while I was there, once in the Pac-12 regular season, in the conference championship and the NCAAs."

Klahn will face Tennys Sandgren next, with Sandgren defeating wild card Aron Hiltzik on Monday 6-1, 6-2. I'll have more from Klahn later this week at the Tennis Recruiting Network.

A third NCAA champion who qualified this week, Ryan Shane, also made the second round, defeating Illinois freshman Noe Khlif of France 6-2, 6-4. University of Virginia graduate Shane, the 2015 NCAA champion, faces Donaldson next.

Brian Baker plays Great Britain's Liam Broady, Mitchell Krueger faces No. 6 seed Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium, Sekou Bangoura and Chris Eubanks meet in an all-US second round match and Jared Hiltzik will play No. 2 seed and defending champion Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland.