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If you want to know what it’s like for the players to have fans in their faces again at the US Open, Courts 4, 5 and 6 are the places to go. These mini-arenas are lined up right next to each other on the east side of the grounds, with just a pair of small concrete platforms to separate them. Standing in the middle of those platforms, spectators can turn their heads and watch two matches at once. No wonder this area is always packed and buzzing. Any players who need silence and stillness before they toss the ball to serve are going to be out of luck here. This is the Grand Central Station of tennis.

By turning their heads on Tuesday afternoon, U.S. tennis fans could watch two comebacks at once. On Court 5, Mackenzie McDonald was facing David Goffin, and on Court 4, Coco Vandeweghe was up against Martina Trevisan. McDonald, 26, and Vandeweghe, 29, have both been traveling the long road to recovery from debilitating injuries.

In 2019, just after he reached a career-high ranking and his first ATP semifinal, McDonald injured his hamstring at Roland Garros and had to miss the rest of the season. The same year, Vandeweghe, shortly after winning the US Open doubles title with Ash Barty, was sidelined for 10 months with an ankle injury, and then tested positive for coronavirus. Today these two Californians were back in the tennis trenches at their home Slam. Vandeweghe was trying to win her first match at the Open since she reached the semifinals in 2017; McDonald was trying to win his first match at the Open, ever.

“It was a really painful time, really super tough, I had no idea what to expect,” McDonald said of the months after his injury, and subsequent surgery. Unable to walk or drive anywhere, and living in a third-floor Orlando apartment with no elevator, he had to rely on his girlfriend’s retired father just to get around.

“So yeah, I didn’t know where I was going to be two years later.”

There isn't much separating the players from the patrons on Courts 4, 5 and 6. Thankfully for Mackenzie McDonald, they were behind him all the way.

There isn't much separating the players from the patrons on Courts 4, 5 and 6. Thankfully for Mackenzie McDonald, they were behind him all the way.

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Two years later, McDonald found himself in a familiar position—up two sets to love against a higher-ranked player, struggling to close the match out. Twelve months ago at the Open, he led Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-4, before losing three straight sets. (That was, incredibly, his third loss at Flushing Meadows from two sets up.) At Roland Garros this spring, McDonald led Cristian Garin 6-4, 6-4, and served for the match in the third set, before falling 8-6 in the fifth. You could be forgiven for thinking that Mackie is just too nice to be a killer.

Today, at 4-3 in the third set against Goffin, thoughts of those earlier losses may have floated through McDonald’s head. Twice he had break points to get to 5-3, and twice Goffin came up with brilliant winners to save them. Finally, on his third break point, McDonald took a hard Goffin first serve and rifled it back harder, for a winner. A few minutes later, at match point, he did the same thing with a backhand, and found himself in the second round in New York for the first time.

The pandemic, it seems, was a blessing in disguise for McDonald’s game.

“2020 for me, the start, was understanding my body,” he said. “COVID actually gave me time to play tennis and get back to feeling like finding my game and stuff, because it takes time after an injury.”

McDonald’s patience and perseverance began to pay off at this year’s Australian Open, where he reached the fourth round. The money allowed him to hire a coach, and his game really began to come around at the Citi Open, where he reached his first final, and nearly won it, against Jannik Sinner. McDonald doesn’t have size, or the serve that comes with it, but he has always been a smooth ball-striker and good mover. In D.C., he used those skills more proactively and confidently than ever before. The result was a return to the Top 100 for the first time in two years.

“I feel like I put it all together a little bit this week,” McDonald said in D.C. “My biggest goal, results-wise, I wrote down, was win a 250 and ATP title. This is one step closer…”

A US Open semifinalist four years ago, the 160th-ranked Vandeweghe is on the comeback trail, but has a ways to go.

A US Open semifinalist four years ago, the 160th-ranked Vandeweghe is on the comeback trail, but has a ways to go.

While McDonald was basking in the applause and talking to ESPN’s Brad Gilbert about his win on Court 5, Vandeweghe was trying to get herself, and the crowd, fired up one court over. Ranked No. 160 and coming off three straight first-round losses this summer, she was predictably erratic in a 6-1 first-set loss to Trevisan.

As the second set progressed, the old Vandeweghe shot-making power began to show itself. She leaned on her two-handed backhand and drove it crosscourt for winners. She charged forward on Trevisan’s second serve and knocked the Italian on her heels with her approaches. The crowd rallied behind her, and she threatened to win the second set. But with the blazing winners also came the wild errors, and Vandeweghe finished a shot or two short of taking it to a third set.

Vandeweghe has been working with the coach who helped her reach the Top 10 in 2017, Craig Kardon, and he says she’s enjoying herself on tour more now. At 29, the talent and physicality is there, but the polish and shot tolerance still need to be added back. If Vandeweghe wanted to see evidence that the effort involved in making a comeback can pay off, she could have looked one court over and seen it in McDonald’s face.

“Goals, they’re always changing,” said McDonald, who has written his down since his junior days. Along with winning an ATP title this year, he also wants to crack the Top 50 for the first time. Right now he’s at No. 61, and rising.

At the Citi Open, McDonald won an excellent match over Kei Nishikori; on Thursday, he’ll try to do it again. The winner will likely play Novak Djokovic. Is a win over the world No. 1 a goal that’s within reach? It might not be one McDonald has ever written down, but it would be interesting for U.S. tennis fans to see him try. He’s come too far not to believe anything is possible.

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