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PRACTICE PASS: World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev hits with Frances Tiafoe at UCLA, along with Grigor Dimitrov

Billy Martin enjoys turning on the TV these days. That’s because, if a pro tennis tournament happens to be on, the men’s coach at UCLA stands a pretty good chance of seeing an old friend.

Some days it might be MacKenzie McDonald, who won NCAA singles and doubles titles during his junior year at UCLA in 2016. Last season McDonald reached his first ATP final, in Washington, D.C., and this year he broke into the Top 50 for the first time.

“I’ve known Mackie since he was 7,” Martin says. “He was close friends with my younger son [Travis]. They grew up playing each other, and were roommates their freshman year here. So he has a special place in my heart. Everything he has done is a tribute to his work ethic, and he definitely had that when he was with us.”

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Mackenzie McDonald cracked the Top 50 for the first time in February.

Mackenzie McDonald cracked the Top 50 for the first time in February.

Other days Martin might get a chance to watch Marcos Giron, who won the NCAA singles title at UCLA in 2014. In February, Giron made his second ATP semifinal, in Dallas, and reached a career-high No. 55.

“Marcos played my older son [William] in SoCal tournaments when they were young, so I watched him for a long time and was always high on him,” Martin says of the 28-year-old Thousand Oaks native.

“He went through so much,” Martin says of Giron. “He broke his wrist in the first tournament he played with us, and then he had to overcome a hip problem. He came back as a volunteer assistant coach for us later, and I think that was a good education for him.”

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Marcos Giron is at a career-high No. 55.

Marcos Giron is at a career-high No. 55.

Recently Martin has also seen a fair amount of Maxime Cressy, who partnered with UCLA teammate Keegan Smith to win an NCAA doubles title in 2019. This year the 24-year-old French-American reached his ATP final, where he lost to Rafael Nadal, made the fourth round at the Australian Open, and cracked the Top 60.

“There’s another great story,” Martin says of Cressy. “Maxime went to the Weil Academy in Ojai, where my son was as well. I got a call from a coach there who said, ‘You gotta come take a look at this kid.’

“I was amazed, here was this big, tall strong kid who was serving and volleying as a high school senior. His mom [Leslie Cressy] played volleyball at USC, so I didn’t think we would get him to change colors. But I was happy when he did, because he was one of the hardest-working players and best doubles players I’ve ever had.”

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Maxime Cressy, a serve-and-volleyer, cracked the Top 60 for the first time in January.

Maxime Cressy, a serve-and-volleyer, cracked the Top 60 for the first time in January.

That’s saying something, because Martin has seen a lot of very good singles and doubles players come and go in his nearly five decades at UCLA. That starts with himself. In 1975, as a freshman, the Illinois native led the Bruins to the NCAA team title, and won the individual singles title, before turning pro. At the ATP level, he would win one singles and three doubles tournaments, reach No. 32 in the rankings, and beat Guillermo Vilas on his way to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1977.

In 1984, Martin returned to UCLA to serve as an assistant under legendary coach Glenn Bassett; 10 years later, Martin took over the top job. Since then, he has led the team to an NCAA title, in 2005; coached 33 All Americans; won 15 regular-season PAC-12 titles; and finished in the Top 5 at the NCAA Championships 25 times. As of March 4, Martin has had a hand in the development of three of the Top 10 American men our tour.

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When you’re a college coach, you learn to push buttons and stay in touch with what your players need. Billy Martin

What’s in the water at UCLA? First off, as a former Top 35 player, Martin has a résumé that “hits at all those levels,” he says. When a player comes to UCLA, he knows he’ll find a coach who understands how the pros think, train and prepare.

“We get guys who come in very good players already,” Martin says, “and we commit to helping them get better and get the most they can from their games. That’s good for them, and good for us, because it makes them better team players as well.”

Martin says the facilities and surroundings at UCLA don’t hurt. You can train outdoors year-round in Southern California, and the school has had a pro-level presence for more than 50 years. Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors won NCAA titles there. An ATP event was held on campus for many years. The Los Angeles Tennis Center, where the team plays, seats nearly 6,000 people, and is a favorite stopover for pros passing through L.A.

“We’ve had Medvedev, Dimitrov, Berrettini here,” Martin says. (In the video at the top of this story, Medvedev practices with Frances Tiafoe.) “Our guys get to watch them train and see what a top guy’s routine looks like.”

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The college-to-pro pipeline, after drying up for a few decades, has become a viable option for many talented young players. Cam Norrie, Danielle Collins, John Isner, Steve Johnson, Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima, among others, spent time honing their games on a U.S. campus. Before she reached the Australian Open final in 2021, Jen Brady was part of UCLA’s national championship-winning women’s team in 2014.

“The Bruin family is always a great one,” Giron says. “When I went to school there was so many terrific players on our team…Mackie McDonald was playing No. 3, and he’s Top 100 in the world [now].

“At the school I think it’s just very competitive. All the players there were very good and very competitive and kept pushing each other. Plus with the coaching staff being really understanding. Billy was a Top 30 in the world player himself, so I think he really understands how to brew success.”

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Before the 2010s, pro tennis careers were typically over by 30, so most young players felt pressure to get them underway as quickly as possible. Now, with top players breaking through later, and contending for titles well into their 30s, there’s a sense that kids have a little more time to develop. And that makes college a more attractive option. Players don’t have to chase ranking points or prize money, and they don’t have to worry about their week-to-week results. They can focus instead on improving their games, while also getting used to the pressure that comes with playing for big titles, and playing for teammates.

According to Stella Sampras Webster, head women’s coach at UCLA, Brady is the perfect example of what a pro-tour hopeful can take from the college experience.

“So many players come in with somewhat of a selfish attitude, and want to play high [in the lineup], but her focus was simply about getting better,” Sampras Webster told ESPN.com of Brady. “She just used every single match, every single practice as an opportunity to get better. She knew if she just kept working and stayed focused, she could improve enough to be a pro.”

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Jennifer Brady boasts one of the best forehands in tennis, has represented the U.S. at the Olympics, and has reached an Australian Open final.

Jennifer Brady boasts one of the best forehands in tennis, has represented the U.S. at the Olympics, and has reached an Australian Open final.

Martin says that Cressy owes his success to the same patient process.

“He didn’t play in the singles lineup his first year,” Martin says, “but he kept shoring up his weaknesses, especially his forehand, step by step. He went from number seven or eight [on the team], to five to four, and he made a huge jump his senior year.”

The next question for U.S. tennis may be: What can this country’s development system learn from UCLA and the other college programs that are sending so many players to the pros?

Martin says that college coaches can bring a unique set of skills to the court.

“I don’t know why the USTA didn’t ask someone like [former Stanford men’s coach] Dick Gould to get involved,” Martin says. “He knew how to get the most out of his players. When you’re a college coach, you learn to push buttons and stay in touch with what your players need. Every one is different, and you have to know who needs to be loosened up, who you need to tighten up.”

As for Martin’s current team, two of his best players left after last season, and two more had surgery this year. So far their record is just 4-5. But Martin says he’s looking forward to better things soon. Having three former players in the Top 60 has to help with recruiting, right?

“I’d hope so,” he says with a laugh.