Three years ago Mackenzie McDonald played Rafael Nadal for the first time. The Spaniard was ruthless on the clay of Roland Garros, dismissing the American 6-1, 6-0, 6-3 in just one hour and 40 minutes.
“I lost that match. I said I wanted to play him on a hard court, so I guess this is my opportunity to do that. It’ll be fun,” said McDonald, who will face Nadal in the second round of the Australian Open. “It’ll be more fun than the French Open.”
McDonald’s journey to this moment began 24 years ago. At the age of three his father, Michael, put ‘Mackie’ in lessons with legendary coach Rosie Bareis at the Harbor Bay Club in Northern California.
“I was super young, lots of hours. That’s some of the stuff that people don’t really see or know about,” said McDonald, who was so small at the time that Bareis would sit on a milk carton. “I was just swinging the racquet and she was sitting there dropping balls.”
The American remembers the countless hours spent on Court 5 at the club, before transitioning with Bareis to the Claremont Hotel. Starting in first grade, McDonald would train multiple mornings each week from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m.
“My norm was the tennis court. My norm was skipping [physical education] at school and skipping some other classes to go play tennis and have lessons. I was that tennis kid at school, so that’s kind of just your norm forever,” McDonald said. “Just happy I’ve done well with tennis… My mom sent me this little paper thing [from when I was young] that said my hobbies and it literally said ‘I want to be a tennis professional’, all these other things. It’s just funny. It’s how I was groomed and raised.”
Some juniors love the early wakeups and abundance of practice. McDonald was not that kid.
“I’d say I was pretty forced to go. Tennis, when you’re so young, for a lot of the guys out here it kind of chooses you before you choose it. I had the skills, I had the talent and then you flourish in that, you run with it and go through your whole process,” McDonald said. “I’ve had my ins and outs with tennis for sure like every other player. It’s a love-hate relationship, that’s kind of the game. You love it at times, you definitely hate it at times, but in the end it’s kind of given me everything. All my relationships, my friends, the travelling. I’ll be forever grateful for the sport.”
McDonald in action during Monday’s four-hour battle against countryman Nakashima. Credit: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
McDonald is also grateful to those who helped get him to this point, from Bareis to Wayne Ferreira, who cracked the world’s Top 10 in singles and doubles. The South African, who now works with Frances Tiafoe, coached McDonald from ages 11-18 in California.
“I love Wayne. I love seeing him around. I love how well he’s doing with Frances. I absolutely love Wayne. He’s like another father to me,” McDonald said. “I started working with him when I was 11 and at that age you don’t even realise what the hell is going on. My dad had his whole master plan and he’s loving what I’m doing now, but I didn’t know at the time and honestly a lot
of things I learned from Wayne resonated so much more later on. But he’s been there every step of the way too.”
One of the things Ferreira always spoke to McDonald about was how mental tennis is. “It’s something you don’t realise, you have no idea when you’re a kid,” McDonald recalled. “He says it’s 80 per cent mental. That’s something that’s still resonating with me today.”
Ferreira, whom McDonald called “a great human”, knew early on the American was a clean ball-striker with good attacking instincts. The former Top 10 star remembers the advice he would often give his former charge.
“The one thing on the mental side I tried to reiterate to him as often as possible is that you can’t always be perfect every day and you’re going to have a lot of bad days. What makes a great tennis player is a tennis player who can win the matches on the bad days,” Ferreira said. “Anyone can play well when things are good, but when things aren’t going well those are the days that you obviously need to try and find your way or find the right way to win. We tried to spend a lot of time on him trying to fight hard, never give up, try to hang in as long as possible and try to just win on those days when he wasn’t doing that well.
“He does that well. There are some days where he struggles a bit with that but I think overall Mackie is a good competitor. He fights really hard, he puts his head down a lot and even when things aren’t going well he competes exceptionally well and I like that about him.”
From Bareis to Ferreira, college tennis and beyond, it was all part of Michael McDonald’s “master plan”, according to Mackie. The oral surgeon wanted his son to become a professional tennis player and his daughter to become an Olympic gymnast. Mackie’s sister, Dana, made the junior Olympic team and competed in gymnastics at UCLA. Mackie attended the same school, winning the NCAA singles and doubles titles during his career.
“These were things that he couldn’t do and maybe his parents didn’t provide him with all the opportunities that he was able to give us because he came from nothing and became a self-made oral surgeon, because he’s a brainiac,” McDonald said. “He’s so smart. With that he made money and went from living in an apartment and not having any money or any resources going to school on loans and everything to giving his son tennis lessons weekly and having Wayne Ferreira as a coach… The guy sacrificed everything for his kids.”
That journey has put World No. 65 McDonald in position for an opportunity like he has Wednesday in Melbourne. The 27-year-old needed five sets and more than four hours to defeat countryman and friend Brandon Nakashima on Monday. Now he will get his second shot at Nadal, this time away from the lefty’s Parisian domain.
“In the back of my mind I did think about it for a second against B-Nak: ‘If I beat this guy, I could play Rafa.’ I saw the scores come up when he was playing Draper. Extra motivation,” McDonald said. “This is something I’ll remember. I’m going to make it memorable.”