The signs were there, at 11. On my match with Mackenzie McDonaldBy Feb 13, 2021
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The signs were there, at 11. On my match with Mackenzie McDonald
While the world is now witnessing McDonald’s attributes on one of tennis’ biggest venues, I’ve been fortunate to have experienced his skills first-hand, back to when he was 11 years old.
Published Feb 13, 2021
Twenty-five-year-old American Mackenzie “Mackie” McDonald has reached the fourth round of a major for the second time in his career. Thus far in Australia he’s beaten Marco Cecchinato, 22nd-seeded Borna Coric and, most recently, 91st-ranked Lloyd Harris.
What makes this run particularly impressive is that McDonald has had to overcome a potential career-threatening injury. At Roland Garros in 2019, McDonald tore a hamstring tendon off the bone, an injury so severe that for a time he wasn’t even able to walk. But McDonald fought hard to come back. Ranked No. 192, he’s playing here with a protected ranking of No. 83. Over the course of this fortnight in Melbourne, McDonald has made an impressive resurgence, a tribute to his capacity for hard work, fidelity to the game, and keen court management skills.
But while the world is now witnessing McDonald’s attributes on one of tennis’ biggest venues, I’ve been fortunate to have experienced his skills first-hand, back to when he was 11 years old and I had the chance to play him on Court Five at our local club in Berkeley, California.
Mackie on this day in 2006 was a promising junior. Over the years, I’ve competed versus many, my playing style an annoying but potentially valuable rite of passage for a youngster seeking to prove he can do something a little more sustainable than mindlessly smack groundstrokes. A garden variety 4.5, I’m left-handed and play a brand of disruptive, all-court tennis that on the good days melds the delicate attack of John McEnroe and the tactical ingenuity of Brad Gilbert, sprinkled with elements of Hsieh Su-wei. Call it, “Spinning Ugly.” Lose or win, you won’t have fun.
Mackie McDonald recovering from surgery:
So the chance to interrogate yet another ambitious youngster with my racquet excited me. Usually, I can hold them off until they’re in their teens. But Mackie was clearly on a faster track, already armed with pruned, efficient groundstrokes, impressive balance and excellent foot speed. That said, the shape of his strokes mattered far less to me than the contours of his head and heart.
The location of our match played a distinct role too. For most of the 20th century, the Berkeley Tennis Club (BTC) was the center of the Northern California universe. Much like the West Side Tennis Club in New York, Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, or the Los Angeles Tennis Club, the BTC was the regional hot spot for great players and major events.
Before Helen Wills went on to win 19 major singles titles, she learned the game at the BTC. In the 1930s, the No. 1 male player in the world, Don Budge, played there frequently. Three decades later, Billie Jean King moved to Berkeley and practiced often at the BTC. During those same years, iconic instructor Dennis Van der Meer cut his teeth as the club’s head pro for more than a decade. Many other world class players were also BTC members.
Until 1971, the BTC hosted the Pacific Coast Championships, a pro event later relocated to San Francisco and San Jose that was won by the likes of Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. That final year in Berkeley, Rod Laver beat Ken Rosewall in the finals. From 2007 to ’09, BTC hosted the USTA Girls 18s National Championships, featuring such future pros as Sloane Stephens, Alison Riske and Coco Vandeweghe. And starting in 2018, BTC has been the site for an ITF women’s event, won that first year by Sofia Kenin.
Given all that, our club’s members have seen their share of great tennis players. At the age of 11, the potential ascent of McDonald was a nice possibility, but hardly earth-shattering. It would also be inaccurate to say our club was Mackie’s primary base. He trained far more at a neighboring club, The Claremont Club & Spa, working with a notable local coach, Rosie Bareis. As Mackie’s tennis progressed, he also practiced extensively with former top tenner Wayne Ferreira.
OK, enough of the pre-game show. Time for tennis.
My best chance to break up Mackie’s game was to get the net—and do that by posing a variety of strategic questions.
In the same way that a chess player makes an assertive opening move to set the tone of the battle, I have my own preferred tactic. Since just about every righty who’s not a pro will begin the match with a mildly wide slice serve, I’m almost certain that first delivery will go to my lefty backhand. From there, I often like to come in on the return, poking it down the line and moving forward. After all, who wants to start off the match having to hit a backhand passing shot? And how often had Mackie ever seen that play from his fellow junior baseliners? I figured I could jump on him right away and extract an easy volley opportunity or, even more insidious, a missed passing shot.
The first two shots went to plan. In came the serve, right to the backhand. Here, the return, down the line.
And there went Mackie’s backhand topspin lob, lofted gently and expertly over my backhand shoulder for a winner.
Even worse was that he’d not been ruffled at all. Clearly, Mackie could hit this shot 50 straight times.
Two points later, Mackie served at 30-15. Mid-rally, I hit my forehand down-the-line to his forehand. Usually what happens is that the opponent tries to blast a low-percentage drive, giving me the chance to get super-close to the net and plop a volley over the net. But since I’d already seen that Mackie was smart enough to lob off the backhand, I wasn’t about to get as close to the net as usual. Mackie knew this too, so rather than rip the ball, he rolled his forehand crosscourt. Forced to bend for a low passing shot, my logical play was to hit the backhand volley down the line. There it went, my shot and Mackie arriving at the same spot simultaneously. Such keen court sense made it easy for him to smoothly pass me crosscourt. As with the lob, this shot looked highly repeatable. Mackie closed out the game on the next point.
Mackie McDonald Confessional Cart:
The hope was that my lefty serve would put me on equal footing. A great many players of all ages often make zero adjustments in their return position, hence making it easy for me to hit that classic lefty slice in the ad court. Given his inexperience, I was quite certain he’d be part of the ignorant majority.
Nothing doing. There he was, inside the baseline, left foot on the ad court sideline, locked and loaded to handle the slice, daring me to hit the tougher one down the T. (And who the heck was I, Goran Ivanisevic?0 Still, wondering how he’d field the slider, I carved it wide—and promptly laced it crosscourt, causing me to miss a low forehand volley. Two points later, I tried one down the T that he easily drilled down the middle at my feet.
I’d now lost eight of the first nine points. Slow starts are one thing. Far more revealing was that Mackie had already answered three of my theoretically toughest questions. That in turn forced me to be on guard for even more of his weapons. The topspin lob he’d hit on that first point opened up the lanes for a crosscourt passing shot. His stance in the ad court greatly reduced the effectiveness of my favorite serve. Now I was the one having to answer questions.
In approximately 20 minutes, he won the first set, 6-1.
A lot of adults I’ve known get very uptight about playing juniors. “I sure wouldn’t want to lose to an eleven-year-old boy,” a friend once told me. That strikes me as one of the lamest forms of false vanity imaginable. Maybe because I was once a kid, playing adults, I far prefer this concept: The ball doesn’t know how old you are.
On the other hand, versus Mackie, everything that happened in the first set left me feeling profoundly aware of our 35-year-age gap. It’s amazing how the interactive aspect of tennis plays out. Versus some opponents, it’s possible to feel fast and powerful; against others, quite the opposite.
As the second set began, I knew I’d have to try at least a few new tactics if I was to stay in the match versus Mackie—and also see if I could execute the familiar ones far more proficiently.
But soon enough, he was up 4-1. Drop shots: he ran them down and drilled drives into corners. Variations in approach shots: more smart passing shots and that darn topspin lob. And given the quality of his fitness and my own ‘70s groundstrokes, the idea of retreating to my baseline and trying to cajole him into errors was off the table.
Likely by this time bored, Mackie missed just enough for me to scratch out two more service holds. In the ninth game, Mackie easily held—6-1, 6-3. In some cases, I’ve lost by that score and knew the texture of the rallies and games was close enough to warrant a rematch.
Not this time.
Since then, it’s always been fun to track Mackie’s progress and occasionally chat with him, either at an event or when he’s back home. But I only played Mackie once. There are many others in the area who’ve spent far more time with him both on and off the court. One such person is Neil Rothenberg, Mackie’s high school tennis coach. Neil has also strung my racquets for more than 35 years, including the two I trotted out versus Mackie that day. As that match proved, though, equipment can only take a player so far.