NEW YORK — “Mmohmentum” is not just some cringey pun, but a proper description to describe what Michael Mmoh (pronounced “mow”) is feeling at the 2023 US Open.
Off the back of another career-defining win for him this year, a straight-sets defeat of No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov in the first round of the tennis tournament, the 25-year-old expressed a joy that personified his positive spirit.
“It feels amazing,” Mmoh told Andscape on Tuesday after his impressive performance. Mmoh will play John Isner in the second round Thursday (11 a.m. ET, ESPN+). “I know obviously I was watching him [Khachanov] play last year here, got to the semifinals, you know he has been very clutch at Grand Slams, last couple Grand Slams he has been tough to beat. So, to come out here and play at the level I’ve played and to win in the fashion that I did, it gives me a lot of confidence moving forward. I’m excited about what’s to come in the next couple rounds because I feel like my game’s there to make a run.”
And why shouldn’t Mmoh feel like he can make quite a run in Queens? His 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 mastery of Khachanov was the fourth notable victory for the former junior tennis prodigy against a former top-10 and current top-20 player this year.
It all began in January with his upset of Alexander Zverev at the Australian Open. That was followed by Mmoh topping Felix Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, then a dramatic final set tiebreaking victory over Hubert Hurkacz at the Citi Open in Washington.
It’s been a remarkable year for Mmoh that easily could not have been.
The defeat of Zverev at the Australian Open came only after Mmoh stuck around after a heartbreaking loss in the final round of qualification. In just a few hours, he went from failing to qualify to a “lucky loser,” which according to the ATP Tour, is “a player who lost in the qualifying rounds but later was given passage into the main draw following a player’s withdrawal […] typically due to illness or injury.”
“It’s funny, the day that I got the call that I was going to be in the draw, my fiancée was actually telling me to fly out that same night,” Mmoh told Andscape in March. “And I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t know. Obviously, the chances are not high but what if I get a last-minute call? Like, I got to be here for at least this afternoon.’ ”
Mmoh described how watching Tom Brady’s game as an NFL quarterback, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on Monday Night Football, indirectly contributed to starting his greatest year.
“Luckily enough, I was watching the Cowboys and the Bucs play,” Mmoh said to Andscape. “And all of a sudden, I got a call. And at the time the match before me was 6-0, 2-0 and I was still at the hotel. So, I had to basically just pack up whatever I had in my tennis bag, get a match outfit. I didn’t even have rackets strung for the match. I just had to rush to the site, drop it off at the stringers, they didn’t even get it in time for the beginning of the match. But luckily there was a little bit of a heat delay, so we got out on court. And then they delayed the match by like three or four hours.
“So, that really helped me so I could settle my thoughts, not be like in this rushed scenario. And also, I could obviously string my rackets and prepare the way that I wanted to. And I thought that really helped me.”
Mmoh is the son of trailblazing tennis pro Tony Mmoh of Nigeria, who reached No. 105 in the ATP Tour rankings in 1987 and played at the 1988 Seoul Games. Mmoh, who is a wiry 6-feet-2, was raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, until age 13 when his father and mother Geraldine moved the family to Florida. Although Mmoh was trained at the famed IMG Academy as a teenager, his passion for tennis started when he was much younger at age 3. He became one of the best teen tennis players in the world in the mid-2010s, winning prestigious events such as the Orange Bowl doubles and the USTA Boys 18s singles Championship. He debuted at the US Open singles draw at just age 18.
A junior ranking as high as No. 2 in the world served as a final building block for potential professional success for Mmoh. The professional life, however, has been far from smooth. The adjustment to the difficult ATP Tour, along with injuries throughout his career, have greatly tested his resolve throughout his six years as a pro. The latest physical setback came just weeks after his breakthrough win over Zverev. A painful abdominal injury during his match against Tommy Paul in Acapulco, Mexico, sidelined him in March for the two biggest tournaments in tennis outside of the Grand Slam tournaments, Indian Wells and Miami Open.
Mmoh expressed his gratitude for the one who worked on getting him healthy.
“Even before the [Wimbledon] tournament started, I was telling the physio that I was working with, like the whole rehab process, that I finally feel like my body now is in the place where I can play multiple matches in a row,” Mmoh said. “Like I finally felt 100% fit. I actually sent him a message and thanked him for all the work he put in.”
Mmoh is in the current group of promising Black American tennis players in their 20s, with his childhood friend Frances Tiafoe, Chris Eubanks and new sensation Ben Shelton all ranked among the top 90 players in the world. This collection has picked up from the legacies of Arthur Ashe, MaliVai Washington, James Blake and Eubanks’ mentor, Donald Young, to forge their own paths.
An exciting matchup against Isner, who has announced he will retire after the tournament, awaits Mmoh in the second round Thursday. In a tone that featured a smile and laugh, the Floridian hopes that retirement for Isner becomes a definite by defeating him.
“Me and John are pretty friendly,” Mmoh said. “He’s one of the nicest guys on tour and to play him in hopefully his last match, that would be a special moment, something that I will never forget.”