By Steve Pratt
LONG BEACH, Calif. (January 13, 2015) – Michael Mmoh remembers the first time he met good friend Stefan Kozlov when the two were both just 11 years old. Mmoh was living in Saudi Arabia where he grew up, and had heard a lot about the youngster from South Florida who at the time was one of the best 12-and-under players in the world.
“I wasn’t very good back then and I came over to train with him for a few days in Florida,” said Mmoh, who upset the No. 4-seeded Kozlov, 7-5, 6-4, in the first round of the Long Beach Pro Futures Tournament, a USTA $25,000 event taking place at the El Dorado Tennis Center on Wednesday. “We’ve practiced a lot together but had never played a match.”
A year after that first meeting, Mmoh and his family moved to the United States to train full-time and settled near the Washington D.C. area.
Mmoh, who turned 18 on Sunday at trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is currently ranked No. 455 in the ATP World Tour rankings and has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world ITF junior rankings after reaching the singles semifinals at the junior French Open and the quarterfinals at the junior U.S. Open in 2015.
Kozlov, 17, was coming off winning his second professional title last weekend at the USC Futures event. Even with two full days of rest, Mmoh said he could tell Kozlov was tiring at the end of the second set. “We played some really long points, and it just came down to who was a little stronger mentally.”
Mmoh, whose father Tony Mmoh was a professional tennis player from Nigeria and once reached a high of No. 105 in the world, said because he and Kozlov are among a small group of young Americans who many think may break through to the top someday, there was added intrigue in the match. “Yeah, it definitely felt a little bit bigger than just another first round of a Futures tournament,” he said.
Both players are living in the same room this week at the Manhattan Beach home of Rick Buchta, who runs the RAMP Tennis Academy out of the StubHub Center in Carson. “It was nerve wracking watching it,” said Buchta, a former Loyola Marymount player who works in talent ID for Head Racquet Sports. “I was so nervous and completely neutral. It’s hard to believe the two had never played before after growing up in the juniors together.”
Mmoh spent his 18th birthday on Sunday with Kozlov and Buchta helping Kozlov celebrate his USC win. And watching his favorite NFL team the Washington Redskins get eliminated from the playoffs. Mmoh will meet former UCLA star Clay Thompson in the second round on Thursday.
The player Kozlov beat in the USC final on Sunday, No. 2-seeded Philip Bester of Canada, also fell in his first-round match on Wednesday as former USC No. 1 Yannick Hanfmann of Germany beat him in three sets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.
Two other American teenagers had nice first-round wins as Deiton Baughman (19) and Liam Caruana (17) posted victories, as did Hanfmann’s former USC teammate Raymond Sarmiento, who also advanced to the semifinals in doubles with partner Evan King.
Wednesday’s First-Round Singles
wc: wild card; q: qualifier
Deiton Baughman, U.S., def. Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, U.S. (q), 6-3, 6-2
Clay Thompson, U.S., def. Brandon Holt, U.S. (q), 6-3, 6-3
Liam Caruana, U.S. (q), def. Gonzales Austin, U.S. (wc), 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4
Michael Mmoh, U.S., def. Stefan Kozlov, U.S. (4), 7-5, 6-4
Yannick Hanfmann, Germany, def. Philip Bester, Canada (2), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3
Daniel Smethurst, Great Britain (8), def. Max de Vroome, Netherlands, 6-3, 6-7 (10), 6-3
Raymond Sarmiento, U.S., def. Alejandro Tabilo, Canada (q), 7-6 (0), 6-1
Ryan Lipman, U.S. (q), def. Logan Smith, U.S. (wc), 7-6 (8), 7-5
Henrik Weirsholm, U.S. (q) def. Farzin Amiri, U.S. (q), 0-6, 6-2, 6-1
Wednesday’s Second-Round Doubles
Jean-Yves Aubone, U.S. / Dennis Nevolo, U.S. (4), def. randon Holt, U.S. / Riley Smith, U.S., 6-2, 6-4
David O’Hare, Ireland / Joe Salisbury, Great Britain (1), def. Alberto Lim, Philippines / Alejandro Tabilo, Canada, 6-1, 6-0
Evan King, U.S. / Raymond Sarmiento, U.S. (3), def. Thibault Forget, France, Tanner Smith, U.S. (wc), 6-4, 6-3
Nicolas Meister, U.S. / Eric Quigley, U.S. (2), def. Gonzales Austin, U.S. Ryan Lipman, U.S. w.o.