LOOK BACK: Michelsen ousts defending champ for first ATP win

There is in tennis a thin line between passion and anger, ritual and superstition. These all play their role in the rapidly blossoming career of Alex Michelsen.

An 18-year-old American from Southern California, armed with a strong appetite for competition and a reformed temperament, Michelsen this week has hit the tennis radar in a major way with a run to the finals at the Infosys Hall of Fame Open, a longstanding grass court event played on the grounds of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I “I feel like I’m playing pretty within my level now,” Michelsen said following his 7-6 (6), 6-4 semifinal win over four-time Newport champion John Isner.

This is Michelsen’s second main draw appearance at an ATP Tour event. The first had also come on grass, Michelsen last month in Mallorca losing 7-5 in the third to another fast-rising American, Chris Eubanks.

It's been quite a July for Michelsen. Heading back to the U.S. after Mallorca, he won a Challenger event in Chicago, an effort that took Michelsen’s ranking from 250 to 190. At Newport, in addition to Isner, he has beaten three highly skilled veterans—defending champion Maxime Cressy, resilient Aussie James Duckworth, all-courter Mackenzie McDonald. In Sunday’s final, Michelsen will play the intriguingly disruptive left-hander, Adrian Mannarino. “It doesn’t feel like I’m in the final,” said Michelsen. “But that’s probably a good thing.”

Though he stands 6’ 4”, Michelsen hardly plays like the stereotypical picture of a tall man with a big serve and massive forehand. His backhand is a sweet two-hander, a shot Michelsen can drive anywhere he wants, including deft disguise and touch on drop shots. Michelsen also enjoys navigating the transition area of the court and is a comfortable volleyer. “He’s impressively unimpressive,” said Brad Stine, coach of Tommy Paul and Ethan Quinn. “You have to have a pretty deep tennis understanding to see what he’s doing out there.”


Michelsen won more points than Isner did on both his first and second serve.

Michelsen won more points than Isner did on both his first and second serve.

Much of that was on display versus Isner, as Michelsen fought off one problem after another with surefire returns, accurate passing shots, and big serves, including one to fight off a set point in the first set tiebreaker and an ace down the T to close out a love hold in the final game.

“He lives on competition,” said Eric Diaz, who along with Jay Leavitt forms Michelsen’s coaching team. “The kid is truly a gamer. You can see and feel his intensity.” Those many assets helped Michelsen win such prestigious junior events last year as the singles and doubles (with Sebastian Gorzny) at the Easter Bowl and the junior doubles at Wimbledon, also alongside Gorzny.

Michelsen has spent his life in suburban Orange County and began to play tennis at the age of three, greatly aided by a pair of accomplished parents. Father Erik, an attorney, was an All-American at the University of Redlands. Mother Sondra, a retired schoolteacher, lettered at San Diego State. Well into Alex’s teens, he hit nearly every day with Sondra. Over time, he learned two major lessons from her, one about keeping the ball in play, another on maintaining composure.

Alex quickly internalized the consistency message: “Let’s lock in and not miss,” are words he says to himself during those tight moments. The second piece is a work-in-progress. Though Sondra had won a sportsmanship award in college, Alex’s journey has revealed that tranquility is not necessarily passed on genetically.


He’s impressively unimpressive. You have to have a pretty deep tennis understanding to see what he’s doing out there. —Brad Stine on Alex Michelsen

According to Diaz, “Alex doesn’t sulk. Alex rages.” While together at events in Europe several weeks ago, Diaz was so disturbed by Michelsen’s behavior that he twice exited the court mid-match. “I told him, ‘You’re too good to act like that,’” said Diaz. Michelsen concurred and has spoken repeatedly about his quest to stay on the good side of that line between intensity and anguish. “[My mom is] very poised on the court,” Michelsen said earlier this year when speaking with Tweener Head, a YouTube program. “I’m nowhere near that level. I wish I was. That’s something I definitely want to strive toward looking into the future.”

So there Michelsen is, an American teenager who has only just begun to enter the life he has long envisioned. “He’s learned how to dream and see himself doing things,” said Diaz. “It’s hard to go out there if you don’t truly believe.”

As those ambitions come to life, Michelsen remains very much attuned to who he is. Hamburgers are his favorite food. “His palate isn’t quite global, at least not yet,” said Diaz, well aware that in time much will begin to change for Michelsen.

But not everything. “When I get to a tournament and I win, I try to eat the same things, use the same hat, same racquets, same shower in the locker room,” Michelsen said earlier this year in a story that appeared on the ATP Tour’s website. “I’m a little superstitious but I don’t think it’s too over the top. Sometimes when I’m travelling with people, they’re like, ‘We have to eat here again?’”


If Michelsen wins the title, he's projected to crack the Top 120.

If Michelsen wins the title, he's projected to crack the Top 120.

When it comes to tennis, Michelsen’s improvement areas include his forehand and serve. Throughout the juniors, Michelsen broke serve so frequently that he took his serve games for granted. But in the pros, he’s seen that break point opportunities surface far less frequently. So once again, Michelsen is looking closely at the narrow space that separates victory from defeat.

As time goes on, Michelsen will continue to navigate back and across those thin lines. But near at hand is one much thicker: college or pro? Last fall, Michelsen committed to play for the University of Georgia (where Diaz played and his father, Manny, has coached the Bulldogs since the ‘80s). When 2023 began, Michelsen was ranked 600 in the world and figured college tennis was the logical place to be next.

But now, having cracked the Top 140 by reaching the final, Michelsen stands at a new crossroads. Said Diaz, “The US Open is that moment when he can field the options and see what’s next.” Said Michelsen in Newport on Saturday, “I’ve got to go home and talk to the family and see what we’re going to do.” A plausible and pragmatic scenario will be for Michelsen this fall to hold off on his arrival at college, continue competing, see where the tennis goes and then decide.

There is also a third lesson Sondra Michelsen taught Alex. It had to do with footwork, mother constantly reminding son to always take little steps as he moved to strike the ball. But now, not intending to be rebellious, Alex Michelsen has taken some very big steps that have put him right in the thick of the tennis conversation.