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From lucky loser to third round, Michael Mmoh seizing the moment at Australian Open

Victoria Chiesa | January 18, 2023


On Tuesday, Michael Mmoh booked a flight to leave Australia after losing in the final round of Australian Open qualifying the prior weekend. By Thursday, not only was he still in the country, but he booked something better: a place in the third round of the main draw of the year's first Grand Slam event.

 

The 25-year-old Mmoh was given second life this fortnight when Belgium's David Goffin withdrew from the tournament due to an illness shortly after play began on Day 2, allowing him to reach the main draw as a lucky loser. After a dramatic first-round win that was played over two days, and saw him come from two-sets-to-love down and save match point, Mmoh's fairytale continued on Thursday with a 6-7(1), 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 upset of No. 12 seed and world No. 13 Alexander Zverev, his best-ever win by ranking. 

 

"I don't know if I'm going to finally wake up or something. It just doesn't seem real," Mmoh told reporters after beating Zverev. "The past 48 hours has been a complete whirlwind from going from being ready to go back home, booking a flight, packing my bags. I was supposed to leave yesterday. Now I'm here, and I just had the best win of my career. It just doesn't seem real. The change of events is just insane.

 

"I don't think I'm ever going to say I'm an unlucky person for the rest of my life. I don't think I deserve to say that."

Let's review: Mmoh was beaten by Australia's Aleksandar Vukic on Saturday in the final round of qualifying. He booked his return flight, and was scheduled to return home on Wednesday. But on Tuesday, he got a phone call that changed all of those plans. 

 

"I was in the middle of watching the Bucs and Cowboys [in the NFL playoffs]. I was fully locked in on that game," Mmoh said. "Then all of a sudden I got a call from the ATP guy. Right when I saw the notification, I answered it right away. Like, literally. I have never answered a phone call so fast in my life. First ring, and I was on it.

 

"He was, like, 'Yeah, you're next on Court 13.'"

 

Mmoh had little time to think: Czech teenager Linda Fruhvirtova was leading 6-0, 2-0 in the preceding match. He hustled to Melbourne Park, and a three-hour pause in play for extreme heat, helped Mmoh prepare for his upcoming match against France's Laurent Lokoli. 

Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images.

But just to earn his eventual shot at Zverev, the world No. 103 had to come back from the brink. He trailed Lokoli by two sets and a break, but stayed alive by breaking the Frenchman when he served for the match. That third set proved critical: Mmoh led 5-0 in the tiebreak, and had a set point at 6-5, before Lokoli reached match point. He double-faulted, and Mmoh eventually won the set to extend the match. When play was suspended for a final time on Tuesday night due to more rain, Mmoh led 3-1 in the decider.

 

On Wednesday, he finished off a 4-6, 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-4, 6-2 victory, just his fourth at a Grand Slam in 11 main draws.

 

"At that point I just knew, if he wasn't going to take the match, there had to be somebody to take the match," Mmoh said of Lokoli's crucial double fault. "I could see that he was very nervous at that point, so I really felt like if I were to win that set ... I felt like I was playing well, but just things weren't really going my way.

 

"But I knew if I won that set, the momentum would have shifted. He would have been thinking about that moment, and I felt like I was the better player. I just carried that momentum all the way through to the rest of the match."

 

Against Zverev, Mmoh again showed his fighting qualities. After losing the first set in just about an hour, he broke the former world No. 2's serve seven times across the next three sets to earn his victory. Mmoh's best previous win by ranking came five years ago, against then No. 15 Roberto Bautista Agut in Miami. 

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.

"I think I came out, and I wasn't really sharp at the beginning. It took me a little bit to get settled in," Mmoh said. "I think towards the end of the first set when I got the break back, I felt like my level was there. I felt like in the breaker he just played a really good breaker. I didn't think my level was bad, so I was confident that I could hang with him and go toe-to-toe with him.

 

"I got an early break in the second, and that gave me a lot of momentum, and just carried it all the way through. I started playing some really good ball. I just believed in myself.

 

"I was actually talking to Frances [Tiafoe] before the match, and he told me, like, 'You're going to be in a position to win this match.' It's just, like, you know, 'Are you going to seize the moment?' 

 

"I wanted to make sure that I did do that once I got in that position."

Mmoh was one of three American men to upset a seeded player in Round 2, joining Mackenzie McDonald (def. No. 1 Rafael Nadal), Jenson Brooksby (def. No. 2 Casper Ruud) and Tommy Paul (def. No. 30 seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina). In all, eight American men reached Round 3, and it's a collective effort that Mmoh says has spurred him on so far. 

 

"All these guys are my good friends," Mmoh said. "Frances is probably my best friend. I grew up with Tommy. Seeing him win 6-4 in the fifth ... I was watching him, and seeing him hit that backhand passing shot winner, it's tough not to get inspired by moments like that.

 

"Especially I've known these guys for so long. I've competed with them. When you see something like that, and you are next on, it's tough not to be inspired."

 

Mmoh will next play J.J. Wolf in one of two all-American Round 3 matches, and the winner will reach the last 16 at a major for the first time. 

 

"He has been playing some really good ball as of late," Mmoh said. "He is a very powerful hitter. I don't think there's too many people on tour that hit a bigger ball than him. It's going to be a tough challenge. It's going to be a tough match. But I feel like with the way I've been playing, the confidence I have from some of these wins, it's going to be tough for both of us.

 

"I think he knows my game. I know his game. No secrets. It's going to be a little bit of a derby, obviously, but hopefully it's another battle."

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