Jack Draper will play in the second week of a major for the first time in his career, after surviving a scare against world No 89 Michael Mmoh on Saturday.
The 21-year-old is enjoying his best ever run at a major in reaching the US Open last 16. It was far more complicated than his previous two rounds, where he had not dropped a set, as the American suddenly upped his level to make this match a duel. Draper had a commanding two-set lead, but was lured into a demanding match which he eventually won 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in three hours and four minutes, thanks in part to his 51-winner count.
It was just reward, especially as this time last year a similarly exciting run was stopped in its tracks, as he had to retire from his third-round match against Karen Khachanov through injury.
“It was a tough match. I’m proud of the way I came through,” an exhausted Draper said afterwards. “Last year was really difficult, I was third round against Khachanov on this same court, and I injured myself. I didn’t want that to happen again today. That’s why I was so proud of myself to come through after a tough year for me. I’m very happy.”
The result on Saturday was all the more impressive as it has come after the season from hell for Draper from a physical standpoint. Before this week in New York, he had not won a single match at a major this year and had retired through injury from three events – dropping from inside the top 40 to outside the top 120. His third retirement came just a week before the US Open began, when he had feared a shoulder issue may stop him from competing in the final major of the season. Getting to the start line in New York was an achievement in itself, but he is now thriving after a career-high win.
This third-round match was far more difficult than his second-round scalp against the ill 17th seed, Hubert Hurkacz, as despite his lower ranking, Mmoh came to compete. A former junior world No 2, his run at the US Open has equalled his best result at a major too. The 25-year-old went into the match as the lowest ranked of five American men left in the draw, after outlasting the retiring John Isner in a five-set battle on Thursday.
He initially looked significantly underpowered against Draper, in particular on the forehand side, and was not allowed to lean into his tenacious retrieving style, as the young Briton closed down points quickly. After Draper secured his first break in the opening set (see below), he looked to be cruising for the next hour or so, wrapping up the first two sets with relative ease. The atmosphere was flat, the crowd fairly sparse for a match lacking in any drama.
But in the third set Mmoh came alive. His first serve percentage drastically improved from the 30s to near the 80s, and he took away Draper’s time with clever point construction. He had done similar in his second-round match against Isner, where he also trailed by two sets. Meanwhile, Draper’s energy on the other side of the court dwindled, and even his serving weapon started to falter. Mmoh pounced with an early break, and suddenly the momentum shifted and the threat of a comeback loomed.
In the stands, British Davis Cup captain Leon Smith had a towel over his head, such was the intense heat on the Grandstand court as the early afternoon set in. The partisan crowd grew louder and Draper’s errors crept in. After sending a backhand pass wide down 4-2 and 30-30, he launched his racket at the ground in angry disgust. Mmoh’s aggressive net play was paying off, and he held on to take the set 6-3.
The Grandstand crowd erupted with chants of “Let’s go Mmoh!” and that atmosphere only became heightened at the start of the fourth set when Mmoh survived a gruelling 14-shot rally to break the Briton. While Mmoh fell to his back in dramatic celebration, the crowd going wild, Draper held his hands on his hips and shook his head.
While that moment could have thrown him, he recovered with an immediate break back. Draper was not playing at his best, his forehand unforced error-count hitting 26 in the sixth game of the fourth set, but it was also his most effective weapon when he landed it. A couple of points later he hit a thunderous one which caught the line, to take a crucial 4-2 lead. He fended off break point when serving it out, and serve-volleyed to clinch the most significant win of his young career.
He plays either eighth seed Andrey Rublev or Arthur Rinderknech of France for a place in the quarter-final.