THE MAN WHO PLAYS LIKE FEDERER – MACKIE’S MELBOURNE RUN

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons 

Some 20 years ago a local pro, Rosie Bareis, sat a small boy down on a milk carton in Alameda, California and hit him hundreds of balls. The kid had a nice little swing. He took to the game and when he was seven he watched on TV as young Roger Federer took down Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. As a teen his favorite place to hang out was a palm-laden tennis haven, Berkeley’s Claremont Resort. 

Then in 2018, (with a name that was far more Scottish than Andy Murray’s moniker) Mackenzie McDonald headed off to Great Britain and forged a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon. It was the greatest achievement any Northern California guy had scored since the days when his fellow Piedmont product Brad Gilbert would win tourneys from Taiwan to Tel Aviv or get the goat (of the non-GOAT) John McEnroe at Madison Square Garden. 

Then again Mackie McDonald is different. He was reared in the shadow of UC Berkeley, but he went to UCLA. In an era when prospects are told to dash off and battle on the ATP circuit, Mackie played college ball and won the 2016 NCAA singles and doubles crowns. Then he headed off to Florida to hone his game. In a sport where 6’ 6” is now the favored height, Mackie’s “just” 5’ 10”. But he was fast and well coached. One of his teachers, Wayne Ferreira, had wins over both Sampras and Federer, and knew the ropes. As McDonald drew applause for reaching Wimbledon’s fourth round he seemed to flow. His movement was liquid, his groundies had a powerful ease, his ranking rose to No. 57, his future seemed bright.

Then a dark day struck: at the 2019 French Open a severe injury stopped him in his tracks. No ordinary tear, his hamstring was off the bone. His team debated long whether to operate. His career was in jeopardy. His surgery prevented massive problems. But Mackie was worried. For six weeks he couldn’t walk. He studied tennis history: a handful of gritty players had come back from devastating injuries. That gave him hope. But Mackie wavered – his doubts were deep. His game was based on speed, anticipation and free-form movement. Now he was hobbled.

He took his time – he had to. As he began the slow, agonizing effort to rehab his leg, he took political science and film courses for UCLA. Some teased him – his favorite movie man was comedian Will Farrell, a USC Trojan. 

But there was little laughter in the Mackie camp. For months his movie didn’t have much of a plot. His comeback was excruciating, his ranking plummeted to below 200. “I was still losing my mind a little bit,” he confided. But slowly he began to retool at his Lake Nona, Florida base. Then there were long trips that bore few results. Last fall, when he finally returned to the French Open he soon had to face a pretty good player – Rafael Nadal. Newsflash – Mackie lost. This year he also fell to Sam Querrey and No. 166 Aussie Alex Bolt. Going into the Australian Open, expectations were modest. He would first face a little known Italian, Marco Cecchinato, ranked No. 82, who had never won an Aussie Open match. Mackie dropped the first set, but he promptly gained control and won with ease. Then, in four sets, he took down the considerable young Croatian Borna Coric, the No. 22 seed who’d had 15 minutes of fame at the US Open. In the third round, he faced the lanky South African Lloyd Harris on an isolated backcourt. 

There were no fans, but plenty of odd loud beeps from nearby scanners filled the air, and the out calls at the match were thunderous. But Mackie was in gear. He prevailed 7-6 (9-7), 6-1, 6-4 and he was pleased. But not as delighted as he was when he heard the words of Daniil Medvedev, whom he will play in the fourth round. The Russian, who in three meetings has never lost to Mackie, paid the American the ultimate tennis compliment.

A musician dreams of being compared to Mozart. A painter would love to be mentioned in the same sentence as Picasso. “Mackie’s a really tricky opponent,” said the fourth best player in the world. “Great player who takes the ball early – I would kind of say playing Roger style – trying to rush the net, rush the balls – not easy to play.”

When IT told him of the comparison, Mackie, who has practiced with Federer, beamed: “That’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”

Now his school, UCLA, has achieved one of their best men’s and women’s results. Both Mackie and Jen Brady (who are friends and in 1995 were born within four days of each other) are into the fourth round. The powerful Brady, who has been on fire and hasn’t dropped a set, will next face Croatian Donna Vekic, the No. 28 seed who scored an emotional come-from-behind win over Kaia Kanepi. There is only one player in Brady’s half of the draw who has won a Slam. 

When Mackie plays Medvedev, he’ll be facing the hottest player on the circuit. Daniil just led Russia to the ATP Cup title and he’s on a 17-match winning streak during which he has topped ten top ten players. But Medvedev has never reached the Aussie Open quarterfinals. And the kid from Piedmont has done some extraordinary things in his still young career. He’s won tourneys from Fairfield to Seoul and, as he was in 2018, he is now, among US men, the sole survivor in Melbourne. Plus, a Russian guy just said he plays like Federer and, if you play like that guy, you must be pretty good.

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