The boy first picked up a tennis racket on an island – Alameda, California. He learned at a resort under palm trees from a pro named Rosie (Bareis) and went to a celebrated campus, UCLA, where he was tutored by a coach named Billy (Martin). Mackenzie McDonald’s nickname, Mackie, brings to mind a legend named McEnroe. One of his coaches, Wayne Ferreira, scored wins over Sampras and Federer. And speaking of Roger, McDonald has practiced with legends named Fed and “Baby Fed” – Grigor Dimitrov.
He’s excelled, winning the 2016 NCAA singles and doubles. He was given a small fortune by a big company when Oracle granted him $100,000 to develop his game. And the suburban fellow paid his dues on the Challenger circuit, including in Fairfield, California where he claimed the title.
But Rod Laver Arena is a long way from Fairfield, and having some nice practice hits with great pros is far different from facing the No. 3 seed and ATP champion Grigor Dimitrov in a prime-time match on one of the game’s great courts.
The conventional wisdom was that Piedmont’s lamb – who had gone through qualifying and just won his first tour level match – would be eaten up by a Bulgarian lion named Grigor. But at least facing the No. 3 player in the world would be a useful learning experience for the 22-year-old.
Never mind that his ranking was No. 186, Mackie didn’t buy into the conventional wisdom. Amazingly calm, the California kid played like a veteran, took the initiative and stunned both Dimitrov and the Melbourne crowd. Controlling the pace, blasting forehands, playing the percentages and hitting with margins, Mackie broke early in the opening set to go up 2-1. And he didn’t let up. Attacking, hitting hard and playing free, he marched to a 6-4 first set win in just 38 minutes.
Big Mac was loving it. “This is unbelievable,” said Aussie Open radio.
McDonald was relentlessly punishing Dimitrov’s second serve and breaking down one of the better backhands in the game. “I’m not sure any American returns as well as Mackie,” said his fellow Piedmont, California native Brad Gilbert.
Mackie later confided he wasn’t nervous. “That’s just my personality.” He was taking it all in.
But there was a simple question to be answered. When would the bubble burst? When would the American qualifier come back to earth against last year’s Aussie Open semifinalist?
Finally, after 65 minutes, Mackie double-faulted twice and allowed Dimitrov to break and go up 4-2 in the second set.
Now certainly the ATP Finals champion would march to victory. The Bulgarian did win the second set 6-2. Midway through the third set Mackie had three breakpoints, but the Californian faltered and fell behind by two sets to one.
Then came a shock. The UCLA Bruin bit the Bulgarian. Taking advantage of two early Dimitrov double faults, he hit out and shocked the tennis world with a 6-0 bagel to force a fifth set.
Tense and even, there were few margins in the deciding set until Mackie was down 5-6 and just two points from defeat.
But he rallied to hold serve. Again he was two points from defeat and again he rallied. Four times he was two points from losing, until he netted a simple forehand to fall 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 8-6. After well over three hours, the Mac attack at last faltered. A final forehand found the net. The rookie fell. Still, this was one of the great American efforts in recent Grand Slam memory. The kid who first played on an island lost. But no man is an island. Mackenzie McDonald lost a tennis match but won our hearts.