Briana Foust

When Roberto Bautista Agut stepped onto Court 2 of the Crandon Park Tennis Center for his first match of the Miami Open, I don’t think he imagined he would face a player who could seek inspiration from his career. Ranked No. 15 in the world and a winner of two hardcourt titles in Auckland and Dubai in 2018, Bautista Agut is a quick and agile player who can hit penetrating groundstrokes off both wings. The quiet and humble man from Spain has the honor of being the first Spaniard younger than Rafael Nadal to break into the top 20 of the rankings. Agut won’t overwhelm his opponents with sheer power, but his extraordinary defensive skills will coax errors out of the best offensive players on the ATP Tour. Friday he met his match in a young American named Michael Mmoh, who seemed to be stealing plays out of Bautista Agut’s handbook.

The third time was to be the charm for the 20-year-old qualifier from Bradenton, Florida. He secured the biggest win of his career to reach the third round of a Masters 1000 tournament for the first time. The past two years Mmoh received wild cards in Miami, but unfortunately lost in the first round each time. This current run of form is a promising building block in a season that already produced Mmoh’s first ATP main-draw wins while reaching his first ATP quarterfinal in Brisbane. Mmoh, at just 20 years old, may be the lesser-known figure in a promising group of young Americans that includes Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson, and Taylor Fritz, but that did not stop a boisterous Miami crowd from willing him toward this big win in three sets over RBA.

If you watched Mmoh’s last three matches in Miami you may be surprised at the variety of shots Mmoh employed against Bautista Agut. Against Mirza Basic in the final round of qualifying, Mmoh was content to grind on the baseline and unleash passing shots as Basic attempted to pressure him by coming to net. Against Chris Eubanks in the first round of the main draw, his reliable serve coughed up nine double faults, so Mmoh had to rely on his mental strength to hang in the match against the towering Eubanks and force errors out of the former Georgia Tech standout. Against Bautista Agut, Mmoh won the match with a mix of defense and controlled offense since he knew he could not beat the experienced Spaniard solely with an attacking game.

Mmoh is not routinely known for serving aces, but against Agut he consistently kept his first serve within the 120 to 130-mph range. He tried to use drop shots and short angles to bring Agut into the net where he is uncomfortable. For most of the match they did not work due to Agut’s quick forward and lateral movement, but Mmoh persevered — that type of shot selection helped him break Agut’s serve in the final game of the match for the win.

All in all, this week is a great sign for Mmoh’s future. He is displaying the ability to adapt his game to different matchups while increasing the offensive potential in his shot selection and serve that will help him compete against players where he must stay on the baseline to win. Next up for Michael Mmoh will be Hyeon Chung, the 21-year-old South Korean whose ascent in 2018 has been rapid since reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open. Yet Chung’s rise has been nothing but methodical after opting to take time off from tournament play to recover from injury and tweak technical aspects of his game. Mmoh, Bautista Agut, and Chung all show that minute and steady progressions can still win this tennis race.

That Mmoh is in this conversation represents a powerfully positive development in his career.

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