- ATP rising star Michael Mmoh discusses his childhood in Saudi Arabia, his father's influence on his game, Olympic dreams and more.
A version of this story appears in the December 5, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Although he’s named for Michael Jordan, 18-year-old Michael Mmoh is a rising star on a different court. Born in Saudia Arabia, where his father, Tony, was coaching that country's Davis Cup team and his mother, Geraldine O'Reilly, was working as a nurse, Mmoh began training in Bradenton, Fla., when he was 13 and rose through the junior rankings. He has used a big serve to reach No. 197 on the ATP tour and earn an Australian Open wildcard. Mmoh could compete for a number of countries: His father grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, reached No. 105 in the world and became a U.S. citizen after attending St. Augustine's College in Raleigh; O'Reilly is from Ireland and also has Australian citizenship. Mmoh, though, dreams of becoming the next big U.S. star.
On why he chose tennis
When I was younger I didn’t really like tennis. I was aspiring to be a basketball player or something. But once I turned seven, and I was competing in tennis, I really loved it. In individual sports, it’s all on you. When you win, its more satisfying. When you lose, it’s that much tougher. I like that type of challenge. I like the accountability.
On the player he models his game after
Andy Roddick. He was definitely my favorite player growing up. I loved his personality. He was the type of guy you either loved or hated, and I definitely loved him. In a way, my game is similar: big serve. We're all-around players, we can do anything. I've learned a lot from watching his game.
On winning his first ATP Challenger title, in Knoxville, Tenn., on Nov. 13
I didn't really expect it, especially since I was coming off [a right elbow] injury, I wasn't playing that well, and my confidence wasn't that high. From the injury, I learned that it's never easy taking time off, especially when you're playing well and have momentum. Once I got my confidence back, I think my game slowly came with it. Everything started to click really fast.
On his relationship with his dad
He gives great insight on the game and helps me a lot, especially when I went through that tough time of injuries. When I was younger, 12 or 13, I was a defensive player. I would win a lot, but I was just using my athletic ability and not really playing in a pro-game fashion. He shut that down and told me stories of growing up in Nigeria, how he was No. 1 in the country but they didn’t choose him for the national team because his strokes were more defensive. After that he really changed his game and he was telling me how tough it was mentally but how important of a step it was for his pro career. So he helped me to get that aggressive mentality for me, and I think that’s a huge step for me right now. He gave me a different outlook, a big boost, and I think he’s going to continue to be a big help in my corner.
On what he remembers about living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
My time there was amazing. I had a great childhood there. I miss the years I had there. Luckily I had one good coach that was actually coached by my dad on the Davis Cup team, Tawfiq Moafa. My dad was a part-time Davis Cup captain for Saudi Arabia. I would say just in terms of my tennis it wasn’t cutting it. I needed a lot more exposure, to be around tennis players and around a team instead of just one guy. I have a mental guy, nutrition guy, fitness coach, trainer and physical therapist. I have the whole package over here and that’s would have been difficult to get the same thing in Saudi Arabia.
On competing in the Olympics
No question, I 100% want to compete in the Olympics. [His father played for Nigeria in the 1988 Games in Seoul.] Ask any athlete in the entire world I think they’ll tell you: the Olympics is the pinnacle of any sport, the pinnacle of sport in general. The biggest stage. There’s nothing that speaks for itself more than the Olympics in terms of a sporting event. It would be a dream come true, hopefully in 2020. I would stick with playing for the U.S. I don't imagine myself switching [nationalities] anytime soon, even for more opportunities.
On how his fellow young Americans inspire him
It’s motivating. It gives you the hint that you’re close. With Taylor Fritz being No. 76 in the world, after he was the No. 1 junior last year and I was the No. 2. So I definitely feel like I have a pretty good chance of being up there. And you don’t want to fall behind. When Frances [Tiafoe] is doing well, and Taylor is doing well and others are doing well, you don’t to be the one guy left behind.
I’m really happy with the way I ended the year, considering my injury. The way I was playing right after injury, being top 200 was a big step and I really needed to win a lot of matches to do so. I’m really happy with that.
On the new ATP “Next Gen” Finals in Milan, Italy, next November
It is very interesting. I’m thinking the rule changes [the tournament will trial a number of rule changes and innovations in order to help with growth in popularity for men’s pro tennis] could be like the juniors at the U.S. Open this year, for time between points, when they set almost like a buzzer beater or a shot clock. It’s definitely something I want to be a part of. At the start of the year my big goal was to be at inside top 150, so considering the injuries and everything to end the year in the top 200 I think that’s a very successful year.
On traveling the world
It gives me a broader knowledge. I get to see different cultures, the way people live and beautiful places. I think that's something a lot of tennis players take for granted: the opportunity we get to travel every week and see such cool places. It's tough to impress me, but my favorite country that I've been to is Japan. Really modern, really safe, the people are really nice. And apart from that, I have two cousins that live in Australia and I have Australian citizenship, so I would pick Melbourne.