MASON, Ohio — When Mackenzie McDonald saw he was playing a two-time NCAA champion and former USC standout for a spot in his first ATP main draw tournament, he did what any self-respecting incoming UCLA freshman would do: He made sure he wore his UCLA hat onto the court.
McDonald, an 18-year-old from Piedmont, Calif., became the first unranked teenager to qualify for an ATP Masters event on Sunday, beating 100th-ranked Steve Johnson 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 to earn a berth into the Western & Southern Open. The win followed an equally impressive straight-sets victory over 77th-ranked Nicolas Mahut — yes, he of the marathon Wimbledon match — the day before.
“I can’t even explain how I feel right now,” McDonald said after the match. “I didn’t expect to win two rounds and qualify for this event.”
Less than a week ago, McDonald, who is coached by former ATP pro Wayne Ferreira and Rosie Bareis at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, Calif., was losing in the Round of 16 at the Boys’ 18 National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. McDonald walked off the court and was greeted by USTA coach Jay Berger, who offered him a wild card into qualifying in Cincinnati. McDonald was stunned. With no ATP ranking to speak of (he had not won a single ATP point until this weekend), McDonald’s head was still in the junior and college game.
“I didn’t even know [the tournament] was going on,” he said. “I was supposed to be in Indiana playing an ITA, a college tournament, and I actually was thinking about going to Indiana instead. But then I realized what it is, and how much this tournament meant. And I decided to come here and take advantage of it.”
Thanks to his two wins, McDonald will earn at least 35 ATP ranking points and a shot at another qualifier, 86th-ranked David Goffin, in the first round on Monday night. When he’s not on court stunning top 100 players, McDonald has been a quiet observer in the locker room here. He’s intent on learning from the game’s top professionals.
“How they eat, how they stretch, how they get massages, how they shower before their matches,” he said. “Just watching them, observing different routines they have in fitness. That’s what I’m soaking up. Before my match with Mahut, I went to the gym and I did my usual five-minute bike, but I saw Kei Nishikori doing some exercises, or Maria Sharapova working on the TRX machine. And those are things I’m picking up and I can apply to my rituals and routine that I can be more professional with.”
The one perk he won’t be taking home is the $10,830 prize money guaranteed to any man who makes the main draw. Taking the money would mean forgoing his NCAA eligibility, and one 10-minute chat with McDonald makes it clear that the teen is looking forward to developing his tennis in Westwood, where he’s following a long line of Bruins in his family. His father, grandfather and uncle all went to UCLA, and his sister Dana is currently on the UCLA gymnastics team.
“I still have a lot to learn and develop,” McDonald said of his decision to go to college rather than turn pro. “I’m still growing — I hope I’m still growing. I weigh 142 on a good day. I can definitely gain a lot from college. I can utilize fitness. I want to utilize all the pros that are there, too. I’ve been hitting with Christian Groh, Tommy Haas’ coach. I’m learning a lot from him. I’m hitting with Tommy, too. There is a lot to gain from UCLA. I can get bigger. I can get stronger. Can learn a lot. I’m still 18.”
McDonald credits his success to a good serving weekend and he’s enjoyed the extra pace his ATP opponents have thrown his way. He said he got hundreds of congratulatory messages from friends back home after he beat Mahut and didn’t even bother checking before he spoke to reporters after his big win on Sunday.
“I’m just trying to take as much experience and gain as much confidence as I can from this event,” he said. “I’m just enjoying this. I’m 18 years old. I’m playing a Masters 1000 main draw that I qualified for, so it’s pretty unique.”