Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Asia Muhammad is coming into her own

Asia Muhammad at Midland 2016. (c) Jonathan Kelley
A couple of years ago, while on vacation in Quebec City, I had the pleasure of watching a fun WTA qualifying match between Heidi El Tabakh and Asia Muhammad. I had followed Muhammad's career for years but hadn't seen too many matches, and had never seen her in person. I was immediately enamored by her power and speed, along her her all-court prowess. Muhammad won that match to successfully qualify for the first time into a WTA main draw, although she had previously been given a wild card to the 2008 U.S. Open main draw.

It was back in 2008 when Asia first entered my consciousness. Back then the Tennis Channel was the sponsor of an ATP event in Las Vegas prior to Indian Wells, and they provided coverage both for that and the concurrent $50K women's ITF event. As a Las Vegas native -- one who got her start through Andre Agassi's tennis academy -- 16-year-old Muhammad received a wild card and made her way to the final, losing to Camille Pin in the final but bursting into the spotlight. There was a lot of attention on her then and for the next few months, even becoming the subject of a Harvey Araton New York Times profile at that year's Open.

But for years, the lofty expectations didn't quite pan out. Her ranking bounced around between 350 and 550, with no notable singles results to speak of. Finally, in the fall of 2013, she reached back-to-back semifinals at $25Ks in South Carolina -- enough to get her into the Top 300. The next summer she got to the semis of a $100K in Vancouver (and won her then-biggest doubles title with Maria Sanchez) and then came the Quebec tournament. Upon qualifying, she drew Johanna Konta, the talent-filled Brit who also had struggled to deliver on her talent, especially in tight matches. Of course, their match went to a third-set tiebreaker, won 7-4 by Muhammad -- her first WTA-level victory. (Her next match, against countrywoman Shelby Rogers, was even closer: Rogers claimed that one 6-7(5) 7-6(2) 7-6(5).) The win against Konta put Muhammad into the Top 250.

2015 was an up-and-down year for Muhammad. The biggest up came in doubles: she won her first WTA title in 's-Hertogenbosch with Laura Siegemund, which was calmly noted by yours truly at the time.
8" src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js"> It took until the very end of the year for her best singles result, thanks to a highly successful October-November trip to Australia. She played 6 ITFs, starting the trip only 2-3 (each time losing to a teenager) but ending it 11-2 including two semifinals and her first-ever $50K title in Canberra.
A couple of weeks ago in Midland, Michigan, I caught up with the now-24-year-old Muhammad, who had just flown in from Maui, where she and Sanchez captured their second title together. ("Serious climate change. One of my expectations is to not get sick," she said.) We talked about her success with Sanchez (including their just-completed first round win), her trip to Australia, hitting with new Las Vegas resident Jovana Jaksic, and growing up in the Agassi-Graf world, a time in which she says she "didn't enjoy" because she put "way too much pressure on herself." The whole thing is definitely worth a listen. (Apologies for any errors on my part, including my calling her Quebec win over Konta the final round of qualies.)



Unfortunately, Muhammad drew top seed Madison Brengle in the first round of Midland, and despite having multiple opportunities, she fell 4-6 6-4 7-6(4). But she played some fantastic tennis and with a secure Top 250 ranking, she will have plenty of opportunities this year to break into the Top 200, play qualies of majors, and continue her doubles success (she's now at a career-high #79).

It's great to see her come into her own as a player, and we at On the Rise (a tennis blog) certainly wish the best for her.

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