Mackenzie McDonald, 2016 NCAA singles and doubles champ, talks college tennis
In May 2019, the USTA National Campus hosted the Division I NCAA Championships for the first time. The campus is set to host the year-end event once again in 2021. While the 2020 championships were not held due to COVID-19, USTA.com continues to spotlight college tennis.
Four years before Mackenzie McDonald won the 2016 NCAA singles and doubles titles with UCLA, he was a fast-rising junior ranked just outside the ITF's Top 10. An Australian Open boys' singles semifinalist as a qualifier in 2012, the California native won the Easter Bowl that same year, his first full season on the ITF 18s circuit. His second year at that level brought mixed results, helping influence him to go to college.
While the college-pro decision was a difficult one, McDonald's commitment to UCLA was more straightforward, given his family's extensive legacy at the school. After three all-American years on campus, he turned pro after the 2016 NCAA tournament. His early ATP highlights include a fourth-round run at Wimbledon in 2018 and a first venture into the Top 60 in April 2019, before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the rest of the year.
Now 25, McDonald looks back on his college days as foundational and encourages most junior players to go down the same route. He still keeps tabs on the NCAA tennis landscape, and recalls watching the 2019 championships while in France at the Lyon Open.
USTA.com caught up with McDonald, who lives in the Lake Nona neighborhood of Orlando, Fla., and typically trains at the USTA National Campus, to talk college tennis.
USTA.com: Back in 2012, before you made the decision to go to UCLA, you reached the Australian Open boys' singles semifinals and were just outside the ITF's Top 10. How did that success factor in as you made your decision to go to college?
Mackenzie McDonald: My journey was interesting. I was always successful in juniors. When I reached semis there and had a good run, I was in my first year of 18s. I had a pretty not-so-good year my second year of ITFs, and I dropped a little bit [in the rankings], not a significant amount, but enough where it was, ‘OK, I’m not winning a Grand Slam,’ which I see Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz kind of doing.
The numbers say if you’re going to get Top 10 in the world in juniors, you have [a decent chance] of getting into the Top 100 in the ATP.
I was definitely on the fence with it. My advice now to every player who is kind of on the fence is that college is really the best route. For me, I felt like I always had it in me. I always knew I could go pro. I wanted to go pro. I think I was pretty young when I was 18, in terms of my body and mentally. Tennis-wise, talent-wise it was all there. So college was a good stepping stone to develop the other areas and have a backup plan.
We’ve always left my options open with college tennis. My dad and I, we always received the letters, and we knew which schools were really wanting me. For me, my college process was fairly easy. I pretty much knew I was going to stay in California. I was kind of looking at Stanford, UCLA and USC. With my family and everything, UCLA was a big one because I had my grandfather go there, my dad, my uncle, my aunt... and my sister [who was on the gymnastics team] was there at the time I was there. Big, big family connection, the team’s always good, academically it’s always such a good school.
USTA.com: What else would you share with junior players who are making that decision, whether to go to college or turn pro?
Mackenzie McDonald: It’s really all about what you want, but I feel like you’ve got to be a little realistic, too, with the decision you’re making. Some of it’s parent-based, also.
I think you should be going pro if it’s being basically almost presented to you. If you’re winning a [junior] Grand Slam, if you’re Top 5 in the world in the ITF, if you’re showing all those marks that have occurred throughout history with all the other [successful pro] players, then by all means go pro.
But I feel like college tennis is such a good route if you want to develop. With how much older the males are in the game now, and females, as well, you can still develop and have a full playing career after college. It also gives you a backup; it gives you incredible memories being on a team. Some of my most memorable moments playing tennis was fighting with the team on the court.
The biggest thing [at the pro level] is the mentality of it, the travel; it’s a completely different lifestyle. The level is insanely high now, and it’s a pretty cutthroat business, as well, so you've got to be ready for that.
USTA.com: Everyone's been watching "The Last Dance," the Michael Jordan documentary on ESPN. You had a bit of an M.J. moment at UCLA, going out on top with the singles and doubles titles in 2016, after your junior year. How do you look back on that tournament, playing and winning two matches every day for a week?
Mackenzie McDonald: Looking back at that, that was probably the last time I’ve done something at a high level for that many matches and that many days in a row. You don’t do that in the pros anymore; they usually give you a day off in between singles matches.
For me, it’s one of my most prized weeks, for sure. I actually knew before the week started that I was going to go pro after, no matter what happened. That might have added a little bit more pressure, but I was so dominant in college my sophomore year and junior year—I had only lost one match going into the NCAA singles and doubles tournaments. I knew what I was going to do after that year. Either you’re going to win that thing or not.
I was really dialed in that week. I was super focused on what I wanted to accomplish, which was win it. I took every single match very seriously in order to be ready for the next matches. Having the extra doubles, too, was a lot. We’d go back to the hotel and then come back and play more tennis.
My semifinal day, I had two three-setters that day. The only three-setters I had were both the semis in singles and doubles. That night we were playing the doubles pretty late, under the lights, and I had to come back and clean up that finals day.
It all came together. Honestly, it was a perfect finish, in my opinion, for me and what I wanted to do at UCLA. For me, my college career was pretty ideal.
USTA.com: Speaking of "The Last Dance," have you seen any of that? Did you pick up anything that you can take with you onto the tennis court?
Mackenzie McDonald: Mentality-wise, watching M.J., he’s different, he’s a killer. I actually feel that theres a lot of those guys in tennis, and you have to be if you want to excel.
For him, he was very cutthroat; he was so confident in himself. I don’t think I have every single characteristic he had, but I definitely see those spots of me. In some of those same moments as him, I see myself kind of get to that mode of being a killer. For him, bringing it every single day in practice and the games, and never letting up and being so dominant, is pretty amazing.
USTA.com: Back to the topic of college, do you have any plans to finish your degree?
Mackenzie McDonald: One great thing about going to UCLA... and almost all the schools now have an alumni club-type thing, where you can take classes afterwards. I’ve already taken 10 classes since I turned pro in 2016. With my injury last year, I did five out of those 10. With coronavirus now, I’m actually planning on taking three classes starting next month, and those will be done by the end of the current ATP suspension date of July 31.
Then I’ll only have one more class left to graduate, with a political science major with a concentration in international relations, and a film and television minor.
USTA.com: Could you see yourself getting back into the college game, maybe as a coach after your career?
Mackenzie McDonald: Yeah, I’ve thought about that actually. I feel like that’s one reason why I want to get my degree, as well, to be a college coach. I’ve definitely thought about it. I would love to be the head coach at UCLA maybe, if it works out, if the timing’s good. I could definitely see myself in college tennis coaching at UCLA or another school. Definitely another door that’s open and possible because I did go to college.
Just being on a team and being a part of something bigger than yourself is pretty cool.
USTA.com: Training at the USTA National Campus… would you say there’s maybe a bit of a collegiate feel to that, with so many top American players there at any particular time?
Mackenzie McDonald: Not exactly, to be honest, with like a team. It’s very different when you’re all wearing the same colors, you're all on the same schedule and fighting for the same cause. Now, it's very individual-based. I'm very selfish, as everyone has to be with their tennis. You've got to take care of yourself and maximize yourself.
I still have my team, but we're all playing different roles, we're not all players. I've got my coach, my strength and conditioning, my physio here. It's different.
USTA.com: And finally, how do you think the coronavirus might affect college tennis? Have you heard anything from your friends or coaches?
Mackenzie McDonald: I just hope financially a lot of the schools can hold their tennis programs. I know a couple, I’ve just seen smaller ones kind of drop off… Hopefully we don’t lose too many programs.
Format-wise, I don’t think they’re going to make any changes; I don’t think they need to. Other than in terms of social distancing and stuff… it might just take a while to figure out exactly how it’s going to go. Honestly, I still don’t know what they’re going to do for a lot of the ATP tennis. I think times are going to change a little bit. We’ll just see how much, and how creative people can get with it.
SEE ALSO: US Open Interview: Mackenzie McDonald