Alex Michelsen does not remember exactly when he started playing tennis, but it was at a very young age. His parents, Erik and Sondra, both played college tennis, so it was natural for him to take up the sport.
There are two childhood memories that stick in the 18-year-old American’s mind. From age three, he remembers often hitting backhands against the door of the family’s garage. Fittingly, that shot has become one of his biggest weapons.
Michelsen would often tag along with his parents to play. But another memory is a day when he was unable to do so.
“I just remember crying on the court one day because it was raining,” Michelsen told ATPTour.com. “I couldn't play.”
Now Michelsen is one of the quickest-rising players on the ATP Tour. The #NextGenATP star was tied for No. 1,081 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings this week last year. Entering the Infosys Hall of Fame Open semi-finals, he is No. 152 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings.
Fresh off his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title last week in Chicago, Michelsen arrived in Newport with just one tour-level match to his name. Now the teen is in the semi-finals of only his second ATP Tour event. Has it hit him?
“Not really. Not yet,” Michelsen said. “I'm ranked 190 now. Seeing that next to my name on the ATP site is a little crazy. I never really thought, if you would have told me a year ago, I'd be Top 200 now. I'd be like, ‘Whoa, no way.’ So yeah, I don't think I processed it. So hopefully, I can just stay in shock this week and just keep playing good tennis.”
Photo Credit: Porter Myrick Jr.
At his roots, Michelsen is a competitor. The teen simply loves trying his best to win, which is a major reason behind his 41-14 record at all levels this season. The American enjoys the one-on-one battle on the tennis court.
Michelsen’s older brother by three years, Jake, also played tennis before choosing swimming. That was not for Alex, though.
“Swimming wasn't my thing. Swimming is very hard and tennis is definitely more fun than swimming as a sport at least,” Michelsen said, adding swimming was “too intense”.
The Californian also played baseball and soccer. Baseball came especially easy to him. But as he approached his teens, Michelsen had a decision to make, ultimately quitting soccer and then baseball.
“I chose tennis. And I find it way more enjoyable than most sports,” Michelsen said. “I'm a very competitive person. I like it being on me when I win or lose.”
In last year’s Wimbledon boys’ singles event, Michelsen lost in the first round. However, he partnered Sebastian Gorzny to the boys’ doubles title.
“It was a pretty cool, pretty surreal experience,” Michelsen said. “I was in the same locker room as Novak for a couple days and I was like, ‘Wow, it's pretty cool being around. [It was a] different, different vibe, different feeling to be around those guys. And really good experience, especially as a little boy seeing all that.’”
Michelsen has not yet turned pro — he is committed to the University of Georgia. But since that Wimbledon victory, he has been on the ascent.
Former World No. 4 Brad Gilbert, who has coached the likes of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, has raved about Michelsen since he saw him early this season.
“I watched him the first week in January when he was ranked 650,” Gilbert said. “I watched him play three times in a rain-soaked week in Malibu, where he ended up playing the second round on Saturday.
“Then I saw him play twice in the Calabasas Futures in March. And then I tweeted about him a bunch that he's going to do this year kind of like what [Ben] Shelton did last year. He's going to finish the year Top 100 and he's going to be into the Aussie Open. But his game is completely different [from] Shelton, who had a big serve and kind of flies around the court.”
Gilbert believes Michelsen’s tennis is his own, but contains a mix of traits from the games of Jenson Brooksby and Tommy Paul.
“His two strengths are that he moves incredibly for 6'4" and he knows how to defend, kind of like a Murray skill, or a Brooksby,” Gilbert said. “But he's even faster than Brooksby.”
It has impressed Gilbert to watch Michelsen seamlessly climb from one level to the next — from the ITF World Tennis Tour to the ATP Challenger Tour and now the ATP Tour — and win at them all.
“He's not getting wild cards every week. He's just winning matches. He knows how to win matches and his biggest strengths are he knows how to move and defend,” Gilbert said. “And he's got a world-class backhand already. I mean, an elite backhand and then you know what else? He's a legit 6'4". I would assume he'll be 6'6" because I've met his parents. His parents are big. Both of his parents played D1 tennis. I will be surprised if he's not at least another two inches taller.
“And he returns tremendously. I think that's maybe most surprising about him is how well he returns.”
About one year ago, Michelsen realised he had to fully focus on tennis if he wanted to reach his goals. Once a young teen who loved spending plenty of time playing Fortnite, teenis had to become more than just something he played, but a lifestyle.
“I just went full 100 per cent on tennis and [had] no other real focus,” Michelsen said. “Obviously, I had to finish high school. Besides those two things, I didn't put my focus toward anything else really.”
Over the past two years, the amount of tennis he has played has significantly increased, from two to three hours per day to five plus fitness work. His coaches have been Eric Diaz and Jay Leavitt.
Michelsen has also put more of an emphasis on his diet, including cutting out desserts.
“I've tried to stay away. Sometimes I have them as a reward. But I try to stay away as much as I can, because it's not good for you,” Michelsen said. “And especially when you're trying to go to the gym and get a little stronger. It kind of negates it. So I've been having to substitute that with protein and whatnot.”
On the court, Michelsen believes his biggest breakthrough — a mental one — came in February, when he made the final at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Rome. The result helped him believe that he could compete at that level.
“I beat a bunch of good players that week and then I went [to the] semis the next week, and that put me at 300,” Michelsen said. “I was like, ‘Wow, okay, I can be playing Challengers now’.”
It has not been a completely smooth road, though. Two months after his breakthrough in Rome, Michelsen suffered a disappointing straight-sets loss in the Tallahassee quarter-finals to Enzo Couacaud.
“I was just kind of losing it. I was playing really bad and I was yelling and I launched a ball out of the facility,” Michelsen said. “That was the last time I was kind of losing it and just acting like a whack job. It's tough being out there alone all the time, but that's the [tennis] life and it's what we chose.”
Michelsen has focussed on staying mentally tough during matches. And what has been clear in Newport was how much Michelsen has been doing just that and enjoying the moment. He has no team with him in Rhode Island. Abdullah Shelbayh, who has competed with Michelsen on the ATP Challenger Tour, supported him early in the week. Former Top 50 player Ryan Harrison, who is in town, has also lent his support.
Michelsen has also received kind words from other players in the field. Tommy Paul, who was the top seed, approached the 18-year-old when he was speaking to ATPTour.com.
“I'm so honoured to finally meet you,” Paul said, offering a handshake.
“Tommy, good to meet you my man,” Michelsen replied.
“I've been following your results and I'm very impressed,” Paul added.
Now ninth in the Pepperstone ATP Live Next Gen Race, the Next Gen ATP Finals contender's only previous ATP Tour main draw came in June, when he competing in Mallorca. The 18-year-old lost 5-7 in the deciding set to Christopher Eubanks, who went on to win the title and reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
Michelsen has clearly arrived. As simple as it sounds, now it is about continuing what has gotten him this far: battling on the court.
“It's fun, but it's hard,” Michelsen said. “Nothing good in life comes easy, so gotta work for it.”