Column: UCLA product Mackenzie McDonald growing accustomed to pro tennis player life

Mackenzie McDonald serves to Croatia's Marin Cilic during their second round match at the Australian Open on Jan. 16.
(Kin Cheung / Associated Press)

Mackenzie McDonald’s real education began when he left UCLA and turned pro after winning the 2016 NCAA singles and doubles tennis titles.

The Piedmont, Calif., native, an all-America selection in each of his three seasons as a Bruin, found it tough to gain a foothold on the men’s tour. He’s a small guy, at 5-10 and 160 pounds, and was dropped into a world populated by 6-foot-5 giants armed with booming serves and freakish wingspans. He was faced with something new every day.

“Honestly, it’s a massive learning experience. The tour has been a lot tougher than I thought,” McDonald said. “I was expecting it to be tough but there’s a lot of speed bumps along the way. You’ve got to be on your toes at all times. A lot of stuff changes: the schedule, the training, you’ve got to stay healthy. There’s a lot to deal with, for sure.


“I think I’ve managed it really well. I’ve put in a full effort to my tennis since I stepped out of UCLA. I think I’ve given myself a lot of good opportunities.”

McDonald took several significant steps last year, starting when he won his first-round match at the Australian Open as a qualifier and then took No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov to five sets. He built on that by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, where he won a tiebreaker from Milos Raonic but lost in four sets. A few months later he beat Raonic in a best-of-three match in the first round of the Shanghai Masters tournament, a victory McDonald considers the best of his career.

He soon might have other big triumphs to add to his list. After winning his first-round match against Andrey Rublev at this year’s Australian Open, he pushed 2018 runner-up and No. 6 seed Marin Cilic on Wednesday (Australian time), going to the net often and saving five set points in the second set before Cilic used 25 aces to prevail, 7-5, 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4 in 3 hours and 37 minutes. Progress takes time and patience. McDonald, ranked No. 81, has the skill and tenacity to rise in the rankings.

“It’s just a different level, so it’s getting used to playing on the bigger stages, playing against a lot better players and being able to compete at that level,” he said in a phone interview last week.

Although he didn’t get as far as he’d hoped in Australia, he will get a consolation prize of sorts. His schedule now allows him to play in the Oracle Challenger Series event at the Newport Beach Tennis Club, which starts Monday and ends Jan. 27. It’s the third stop of the series, which allows players to gain points toward earning a wild-card berth into the main draw of the BNP Open at Indian Wells in March. Also expected in the 48-player singles draws are Jack Sock, Bradley Klahn and Reilly Opelka on the men’s side and CoCo Vandeweghe, Sofia Kenin, Sachia Vickery, Lauren Davis and Eugenie Bouchard on the women’s side.

“I love being back in California,” McDonald said. “These days I don’t get to spend as much time in California, living in Orlando now and being on the road so much of the year. So getting back, even for a little bit to play a tournament, it certainly feels like home for me and no doubt I’ll play good tennis when I’m in California.”

McDonald long ago accepted that he couldn’t match the thunderous serves some of his rivals can unleash. For example, Opelka — who stands 6-foot-11 — served 67 aces in a five-set, second-round loss to Thomas Fabbiano in Melbourne.

“I think I have a really strong return, so that definitely helps. I think I have other types of weapons and strategies I can use on the court,” McDonald said “I’ve been using my speed, taking time away [from opponents]. I think I have a lot of weapons in my game. My serve may not be my biggest one, but I think I can counter a lot of the taller guys and their serves.”

His goal for this year is simple and doable: play more, and get more big-match experience.

“Ranking-wise, I definitely want to break top 50 this year and hopefully go in the running for winning my first ATP title if I can,” he said. “Process-wise, just keep getting better along the way.”

The Newport Beach event also will include a one-night Invesco Series exhibition on Jan. 26 featuring James Blake, Tommy Haas, U.S. Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish, and former world No. 1 Andy Roddick.

“I won’t be playing as well as Mackenzie is currently,” Roddick joked during a phone interview. “I don’t know him well personally past, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ... but tennis is a very small world and he has a great reputation as far as putting the work in and doing things the right way.”

Roddick is the last American male to have won a Grand Slam, at the 2003 U.S. Open. The next generation has sputtered, but there’s hope: Although Sock, John Isner, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey went out in the first round of the Australian Open, 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe upset No. 5 seed Kevin Anderson and 21-year-old Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes eliminated No. 30 Gael Monfils in a three-tiebreaker, four-set match to reach the third round.

“I think competition, maybe even a little bit of jealousy, creates a little bit of friction that I think is healthy,” Roddick said, noting the respectable number of American men (16) in the main draw. “I think the more that these guys get out there and beat each other up in practice, beat each other up in matches, and then one of them breaks through and does something amazing, the other guys go, ‘Wait a minute, I beat that guy two weeks ago in practice. Why not me?’ I like to see strength in numbers, and Mackenzie is certainly part of that conversation.”

Even a small guy can play a big part in that conversation.

Twitter: @helenenothelen