The next wave of American men still working on breakthroughs

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WATCH—ATP Rankings Update: 

While Frances Tiafoe was hobnobbing with the game’s best at the second edition of the Laver Cup and Taylor Fritz was preparing for this week’s tournament in Chengdu, China, several of their young compatriots were toiling away in Columbus, Ga., posting results that could soon lead to a reunion on the main tour.

Michael Mmoh, the No. 3 seed, came through to win his third career Challenger title over former world No. 63 Jordan Thompson of Australia. And in doubles, Tommy Paul teamed up with the veteran Peter Polansky to take his second career title in that discipline. Mmoh’s final-round showing marked the third consecutive week a young American played for a title, following Reilly Opelka’s back-to-back finals in Chicago and Cary, N.C.

Is this a sign that the Top 100 of the rankings will soon be flooded with young Americans or will the wait continue?

Mmoh, Opelka and Paul—along with Stefan Kozlov and Noah Rubin—battled for national titles and junior Grand Slams against their more-heralded countrymen, but haven’t been able to keep up with them at the professional level as of yet. Perhaps the biggest obstacle in their ascent up the rankings has been injury. Kozlov, for one, hasn’t played since the beginning of August. And every time Paul gets ready to make a push forward, some type of injury slows his progress. Rubin, who went to college for a year, has had health-related issues as well.

When they’ve been on the court and are able to put in a solid stretch of interruption-free tennis, they’ve given glimpses of the talent that took them to the top of the junior rankings. All of them have won Challengers, the tournaments a rung below the main tour, and have defeated players that have reached the Top 100 or higher.

Mmoh has been among the healthiest of them and has been playing the best tennis of his career in 2018. His win in Columbus last week has brought him to a new high in the rankings of 108, which happens to be only three spots removed from his father’s career-best spot of 105.

Physical issues have exacted a toll on their careers to this point. Managing the expectations of others—and their own—will have an impact on them, as well, especially when their results are compared with those from prior generations.

American legends Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang often speak of how they gained motivation from watching what their peers did. Chang was the first among them to win a Grand Slam, at the 1989 French Open, and from that year on, at least one of them reached a major final throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, with the streak ending in 2004.   

While the achievements of those four are a benchmark to strive for in the future, right now, players like Opelka, Mmoh and Paul are presented with a more pressing task: hitting the heights experienced by their peers Tiafoe and Fritz. 


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