MACKIE MCDONALD – The Man Who Left Piedmont

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Photo by Patrik Lundin/Getty Images for LTA

Bill Simons

There’s a sign near Grand Avenue in Oakland. It informs the unfortunate souls who drive by: “You are now leaving Piedmont.” You see, the leafy, old-school enclave of Piedmont, California is serene and affluent – a dreamy haven that features astonishing mansions, and street names like Estates Drive. Maybe you’re supposed to feel a tinge of loss when you leave the sublime place – paradise lost? Brits would call it posh. And, come to think of it, it may be the Bay Area’s best answer to the upscale village of Wimbledon.

Actually, Piedmont has far more impressive lawns then Wimbledon – well, that is, if you don’t count the most celebrated lawns in all of sports.

Today, on immaculate Court 16, Piedmont’s rising Mackie McDonald scored a narrow win over Lithuanian Richard Berankis in four gritty sets. It was a banner day for Piedmont. Over the past 26 years, Mackie and the former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert may well be the only Bay Area guys to have claimed main draw wins at Wimbledon – and both are from Piedmont.

With a glint in his eye, Mackie told IT that as a wide-eyed, seven-year-old tennis fan he watched Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras, and as a teen he saw the Isner-Mahut match. 

Mackie trained at the considerable Claremont Resort and Spa. Then he left Piedmont. At UCLA, he won both the NCAA singles and doubles championships, and then ventured out into the shark-infested world of the ATP. Last year a high-tech angel flew his way. The Bay Area-based Oracle Corporation stepped up and gave the guy one of their $100,000 US Tennis Awards. That helped. He got great coaching, and in January he beat the formidable Grigor Dimitrov, 6-0, in a stunning Aussie Open set. “To bagel a top guy like that is hands down pretty sick,” Mackie quipped.

Tennis success often is built around good decision-making. And Mackie, like a fellow named Federer, chose to skip this year’s clay circuit and went to Korea to play a challenger. His victory there was critical for him getting into the Wimbledon main draw. Mackie gushed, “Getting directly into a Grand Slam is pretty special and doing it at Wimbledon is pretty sick.”

Through much of the spring Mackie has been scoring pretty big wins in pretty small tournaments. He’s beat Frances Tiafoe, Dennis Kudla, Peter Polansky and Bjorn Fratangelo and he confided that his win over Andreas Seppi [who beat Federer at the 2015 Aussie Open] was huge. “It was my first main draw 250 win. That showed me a lot,” he proudly noted. “Then I almost beat Jeremy Chardy to reach a semi.”

That’s nice. But a tennis player making it onto Wimbledon’s lawns is like an actor stepping up to Broadway.

Today was Mackie’s big day. “For a moment, when I was being escorted out there, I was just taking it all in and thinking how big it is to play here and what an honor it is. I took it all in. I didn’t think I would be nervous, but at that moment I thought about everything. It was big.

“But I had to concentrate. My match was a roller-coaster. I haven’t played a lot of Slams or best-of-five matches. It’s still new…[But] I’m really happy about my progress over just two years as a pro – I just broke into the top 100. I’m really happy with my team and my coach, Matt Cloer. I’m improving. I’m working hard so I deserve it, too. My game’s a little more gritty. My strength, movement and my forehand and backhand are great compared to last year. I’m smarter, I’m serving a little bit better and returning well…My greatest attribute is speed.”

Today, he needed all of that. Because every time he pulled away from Berankis, the son of a Lithuanian taxi driver, his foe kept his meter on and fought back hard. But, despite a late-match Mackie dip, the Californian prevailed in a tight fourth set tiebreaker to claim a 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (6) win.

At his moment of triumph the pro let out a fierce, rather un-Piedmont like roar of delight. “I was just happy to get through,” he said. “I did enough to get the win, that’s all that matters.”

Well, that’s not exactly right. For, at his sweet moment of triumph, it was clear just how much Mackie appreciated all those who had helped him get out of Piedmont. McDonald praised his foundational teachers at the Claremont, Rosie Bareis and Wayne Ferreira, and UCLA’s Billy Martin and other Bruin coaches. He thanked Fila, who backed him from the get-go. “They were one of the very few companies that wanted to help a college guy – they saw potential in me.” And, of course, the kid didn’t forget a certain visionary who jump-started his career.

Lobbing an understatement, Mackie informed us: “Mark Hurd is a very generous guy.” No kidding. The tennis-happy Oracle executive gave a Piedmont kid who was barely ranked in the top 200 an award of $100,000. “I saw him and hit with him in Palm Springs this year,” Mackie said. “He’s been really nice to me. We’ve had so many conversations – he’s a great guy. It’s unbelievable how involved he’s gotten in tennis and how he helps upcoming players. I’m just grateful that he took me under his wing. Their support helped 100 per cent.

“I was pretty scared coming out of college. I didn’t have family support. I didn’t have any deals – nothing. I was a guy fighting for my life out there. It was extremely tough to go from Westwood [where UCLA is] to out on the tour – it’s a completely different lifestyle. I wasn’t used to it – it took a lot of learning. Once I got that grant, I really felt secure financially. and that helped me deal with a lot of stress so I could focus on what’s important.

“It meant a lot that Oracle would get behind a guy like me. That, in itself, gave me lots of confidence. Now I want to keep crushing it and put the blinders on and go match by match and do my best.”

Mackie will need to do just that. He’ll next face the 22-year-old Nicolas Jarry. And if Mackie beats the 6’ 6” Chilean, he’ll probably face an even better 6’ 6” giant – last year’s Wimbledon finalist, Marin Cilic. But, then again, it’s a tough world out there, once you leave Piedmont.  

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