Editor’s note: In the midst of the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston this week, World No. 59 Mackenzie McDonald was kind enough to take some time to fill in for Jon Wertheim in this week’s Mailbag. The 23-year-old American fielded questions on college tennis, his thoughts on the sport’s GOAT, his favorite Roger Federer story and more.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim. He’ll return to the Mailbag next week.
Curious, Mackie, what have been the biggest changes from when you were training in NorCal/Berkeley, to where you now train?
• I’d say there are a lot of differences. I was training in Nor-Cal when I was super young and before college. So I did a lot of fitness on my own, but it wasn’t much besides running—I didn’t touch any weights. Hitting was just a lot of balls and trying to find the best players around possible, which was Cal [University] players or some juniors and Wayne [Ferreira] and Rosie [Bareis], my coaches.
Now in Lake Nona, my whole life is structured around my tennis. I have a full team and a full fitness program with all the tennis, as well as the mental stuff and nutrition. Pretty much every field is now covered.
What specific skills did college tennis sharpen that have aided you in your pro career?
• Confidence. I played so many matches and I feel like I was really dominant. That helped. My consistency as well. Coming out from the juniors, one big thing that college players do better is the consistency level. It’s just a little bit better. Obviously, the pros have a way different game of consistency. And for me, I felt pretty powerful on the court. I think I used that a lot in college to breeze by a couple matches here and there.
Did you model your game off of a tennis player when you were young? If so, who?
• Not really. I worked with Wayne [Ferreira] starting when I was 12. I feel like he tried to model my game a little bit after his, to be honest. I did have a massive forehand swing when I was 12, 13, 14. I learned that it didn’t really work for me that well, so I had to change it up after a while.
I assume you haven’t yet spent years playing best-of-five. So how do you feel about the migration away from it? Do you think you are now disadvantaged at Slams because you don’t have the same Bo5 experience as older players? Is Bo5 sacred?
• Everyone’s got to go through that learning curve if you’re new to it. For me, coming out of college, I won NCAAs and then three months later I had to play a best-of-five-set match. I knew I wasn’t as prepared as I wish I was for that. I ended up losing after being up two sets to love. So I had to face a tough lesson pretty early in my career about best-of-five-set matches.
But I’d say that I’ve worked really hard on my fitness and set my goals for Grand Slams knowing that I need to last five sets. And my team knows that too—we’ve pushed really hard in the gym and with the hours we do on court so that we are prepared for those moments.
I think that the better players have an edge in best-of-five-set matches. They’re not going to fade in the longer matches. So I think that it should definitely stay in all the Grand Slams.
Do you go into tournaments genuinely expecting—not hoping, but expecting—to win? I guess what I’m asking: how disappointed are you when you lose? If you win a few matches and then lose, do you leave a tournament feeling pretty good? I hope so!
• I used to take losses pretty tough when I was starting out. It’s tough learning that you lose pretty much every single week. And now that I’m on the ATP Tour-level, it’s even tougher. There are guys in the Top 50 with losing records. Being over .500 is pretty good. At this level, coming to a tournament, you’ve just got to play it match by match—at least I do—and hopefully you step away with a couple wins. That’s a pretty good week for me.
Dynasties or parity?
Do you think it will be beyond most reasonable debate that the three greatest male tennis players of all time, regardless of order, are playing right now? Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic … and that the greatest woman’s player of all time is playing right now as well: Serena Williams?
In other words, this has been the greatest era in the history of tennis, period. Do you think this will be understood by all?
—Dominic Ciafardini, N.Y.
• Yes, I do. These guys have been so dominant for over a dozen years. The only other comparisons you can make are Pete and Andre, or Borg and McEnroe back in the day. With how long people are lasting on tour, like Roger playing right now at 37, it’s pretty impressive. And Serena’s been so dominant. I feel like she’s been playing even longer.
You are in the top 100 now after a great career at UCLA. But if someone were on the fence about whether to stay in college or try to make a go of it on the tour, what would you tell them? What are the hardest transitions to make? What is something you wished someone had told you in advance?
• I would tell them that college is always a good option no matter how good you are because there’s life after tennis and you’ll have something to fall back on. But there are exceptions. If you’re winning junior Slams or have a good ATP ranking before college, then there’s a reason to go pro. But you can’t go wrong.
Everyone has different paths. There are so many different lessons and transitions. For me, it was going from three years in college where I was very comfortable and had a team with me, to traveling alone week after week and fighting for yourself. You’re out there and it’s all about you. You’ve got to really take care of yourself because you’re the most important thing. I had to realize that.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to do really well. But that’s me. My older self would tell my younger self to relax more, enjoy the process and keep working hard. But really make sure you’re enjoying it. Sometimes I’m really tough on myself and want it more than I should.
What’s your best Roger Federer story? Everyone has one!
Editor’s Note: In December 2017, McDonald trained with Federer in Dubai.
• Probably in Dubai going to the Burj Al Arab. Going swimming and hanging out inside the hotel and at the pool. You can’t really go unless you’re staying there. It’s like a six-star hotel. So he took us there—me and Ernesto [Escobedo]—on the last day to hang out.
We were just chilling, got lunch—he cleared a whole restaurant so we could sit there and eat. It was crazy.