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Boy Meets World: Alex Michelsen's ascent from No. 1,022 to No. 110, in one year
An unorthodox practice regimen and a "jumbled" game is all working out for this 19-year-old American.
Published Sep 28, 2023
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—“I’m just incredibly lazy!”
The yell comes from Alex Michelsen, the 110th-ranked player in the world, as he lines a sidespin forehand into the net on Court 12 at The Tennis and Pickleball Club at Newport Beach.
Of course, that’s not true. On this Tuesday morning, shortly before noon, the 19-year-old is just past the halfway mark of a five-hour practice day. Arriving after an early morning dermatologist appointment, he was on the court by 9:00 a.m. to work with one of his two coaches, Eric Diaz.
Diaz began with extensive detail work on Michelsen’s backhand volley. It was only a year ago that Michelsen began to hit that shot with one hand. On a more macro basis, it was only a year ago that Michelsen’s rocket-like rise began, from a ranking of 1,022 at the end of last September, when he was a promising junior, to his current spot of 110 as a full-fledged pro.
“Pretty crazy,” he says.
At 9:15, Michelsen is slowly being fed one backhand volley after another. Never mind that Michelsen in recent months has earned wins over such veterans as John Isner, Kei Nishikori and Mackenzie McDonald. What matters now is learning to hit this single stroke effectively.
“You’re not generating pressure,” says Diaz. A few balls later: “Isolate the turn.”
Soon after comes a similar microscopic approach to the serve—an improved shot that, along with a forehand upgrade, Michelsen credits as greatly aiding his recent ascent. Standing across from Michelsen in the deuce court, Diaz asks, “Can you go wide?” Michelsen complies. More accurately, the way Diaz sees it, he attempts to comply, for the slice is not as sharp as desired.
Diaz walks across the court, pulls out his phone, and begins to videotape the Michelsen motion. “Loosen your fingers,” says Diaz.
At 10:00 a.m., following an hour of stroke production work with Diaz, Michelsen commences two hours of drills. After lunch, he’ll devote another two hours to various forms of point play—serve and return games, tiebreakers, perhaps a set. During most of that afternoon time, Michelsen will be on the court with his fellow first-year pro, Learner Tien. In August 2022, when Michelsen lost in the quarterfinals of the USTA Boys’ 18 National Championships in Kalamazoo, Tien won his first of two consecutive titles there.
As recently as early August, Michelsen had committed to attend the University of Georgia, the tennis powerhouse where Diaz’s father, Manny, is the coach. But as he generated increasingly good results, Michelsen thought about going pro. The tipping point came in July, soon after Michelsen won a Challenger tournament in Chicago and reached the finals at an ATP stop in Newport.
“I went home after Newport, talked to my parents, and said, ‘Look, this is what I want to do,’” Michelsen says. “My coaches agreed, my parents agreed, and we're all on the same page now.”
Says Michelsen’s other coach, Jay Leavitt, “Alex is not a normal kid who wanted to go to college parties and football games.” Along with Diaz, Leavitt has been working with Michelsen for just over three years. He has been Tien’s coach even longer, from when he was ten years old.
The way Michelsen sees it, Diaz is the bad cop, Leavitt the good cop.
“Eric is a little bit more aggressive with his coaching,” says Michelsen. “He gets angrier easier, but it's good. Jay is a little bit more passive, more relaxed, laid-back coach. He's kind of a feel-good coach.”
Prior to joining forces with Diaz and Leavitt, Michelsen was taught by his mother, Sondra, an excellent player who lettered at San Diego State and gave her son a solid grounding in the value of consistency. His father, Erik, a commercial real estate attorney, was a three-time All-American at the University of Redlands.
How it often goes in tennis is that players as skilled and focused as Michelsen and Tien will conduct their work on a single court, strictly with one another, under the eyes of their coaches. But that’s not the case with these two. Michelsen and Tien practice all day long with more than a dozen juniors who occupy five courts at the club and comprise the group Diaz and Leavitt call Tier 1 Performance.
Says Michelsen, who lives quite close to Newport Beach, “Well, first of all, they're all my friends, so I really enjoy just being around them. And second of all, they can all hit well enough to where I can get a good practice. I just kind of focus on myself and work on the things that need to be worked on, and it's been working in the last couple of years.
“I tell people my training situation and sometimes they're like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing over there?’ But it's working for me, so I'm going to stick with it.”
So there is Michelsen, engaged in a pattern drill and rally game with a 17-year-old, Justin Chung, and two 15-year-olds, Gray Kelley and Nischal Spurling. One ball after another is struck with power and accuracy. Queries follow: “Was that really out?” “Did you touch it?”
No question, Michelsen is the leader of this pack, but he also loses his share of points. Torched by a crosscourt forehand passing shot, Michelsen shouts, “That is just too good.” A few minutes later, he clips a backhand volley well wide and makes a comment said by players of all skill levels: “All that backhand volley work . . . ”
Michelsen describes himself as an all-court player. (“I like mixing things up and coming forward,” he says.) But there’s more nuance to the Michelsen playing style than that. The errant slice forehand was one of a smorgasbord of shots that Michelsen enjoys hitting. Over the course of the drill session, Michelsen will carve a slice backhand approach shot, feather a drop shot, crack a massive down-the-line forehand, angle off a forehand, come in on a few sidespin forehands, and then line his pet shot, a down-the-line backhand.
Given that Michelsen is a stringbean-like 6’ 4,” one could say he plays a little man’s game inside a big man’s body. It adds up to one highly jingle-jangle, disruptive playing style.
“It’s all a bit jumbled,” says Leavitt. The approach going forward? “Make it better jumbled.”
I tell people my training situation and sometimes they're like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing over there?’ But it's working for me, so I'm going to stick with it. Alex Michelsen
When his day’s work on the court is done, Michelsen will drive home in the six-year-old gray Honda that Erik used to drive. To unwind, Michelsen plays video games and reads about history, most recently enjoying a book about the making of the atomic bomb.
Now that Michelsen is devoting even more time to making history, he’s in unfamiliar territory. His mom has made a rare appearance this morning, carrying new pairs of shoes from Fila and adidas (Michelsen currently wears Lotto). There’s also the matter of Michelsen’s racquets and how best to manage the increased demands of potential equipment deals, global travel, higher levels of competition, and the ongoing effort to improve each part of his game.
Asked what’s surprised him most about being a pro, Michelsen says, “How much everything costs. Everything's expensive. Being a pro tennis player is not cheap. You got to travel and figure it all out on your own. I think it's a good life lesson, good life lessons to learn. But yeah, that was kind of the big shocker for me.”
Just over a week ago, Michelsen reached the semis of a Challenger tournament in Cary, N.C. Rather than enter the qualifying at various ATP tournaments in China, Michelsen will next play two Challenger events in the San Francisco Bay Area, approximately 400 miles north of his Newport Beach training spot. The first takes place in Tiburon, a San Francisco suburb just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Michelsen and Tien will play doubles there together, the left-handed Tien in the deuce court.
A year ago, Michelsen had lost in the semis of Lubbock to a player ranked 1,786. Making his way through the Tiburon qualifying draw the following week, Michelsen faced Juncheng Shang, an IMG Academy prospect who’d long been what coaches call “a chosen one.” That had not been the case for Michelsen. He beat Shang in a third-set tiebreaker, but then lost in the next round.
This year, Michelsen will come to Tiburon as the top seed. As with his communal practice sessions, this is yet another example of Michelsen putting himself in a situation where he’s expected to take command. Call this a tennis version of boy meets world, a year that to Michelsen feels more like 100.