Tennis aficionados may bemoan the dearth of top U.S. players, but a trip to the East Bay might brighten their spirits.
Had they been at the Claremont Hotel tennis courts on a recent sunny August day they would have observed a teenager cracking brilliant backhand crosscourt shots to an opponent who returned them with equal vigor. Who are these players?
The 17-year-old is Mackenzie “Mackie” McDonald of Piedmont, a pro tennis prospect with such promise that his photo graces the website of the Claremont Top Ten Tennis Academy.
The man across the net from Mackie is Wayne Ferreira, a retired pro with eye-popping credentials, which include wins over Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, 26 career singles titles and an ATP ranking in the top 15 for over 10 years, with a top ranking of number six.
Ferrreira, along with Rosie Bareis, directs the academy at the Claremont. Bareis has coached nationally ranked juniors and USTA teams, and is director of tennis at The Club at the Claremont Hotel, Club & Spa. Both extol Mackie’s tennis skills and his uncommonly mature attitude. Mackie’s practice session goes into high gear.
“Keep your body still,” Ferreira shouts to his protégé. “Move in on the shot at contact.” Mackie responds. He drills several more precision backhands. Minutes later he’s working on his serve, which the speed gun records in excess of 115 mph.
Other Academy parents and youngsters watch in amazement. Mackie has compiled a laudable record in junior competition, winning the boys’ 18s single title last April at the 2012 East Bowl International Tennis Federation (ITF) Tennis Championships in White Plains, NY.
“He’s capable of beating anyone,” says Ferreira, who has coached Mackie since he was 12. “He works hard. He’s been preparing since he was 7 or 8. His backhand’s a weapon. He needs to be stronger on the forehand. And he needs to add some bulk. Then he can take his game to the next level.”
Mackie will turn 18 next April and start his final year on the juniors tour. No one has any illusions about what it takes to be a top ATP pro, but Mackie’s stars seem to have aligned when he was only 3 years old. It was the first time he picked up a tennis racquet.
“My dad was taking a lesson (here) from Rosie and he told me to jump in and hit a few,” Mackie said. The teenager doesn’t recall the incident but has no doubt it happened. He was all of 7 or 8 when he got “serious” about the sport.
He has since racked up a string of victories, including stellar performances at Grand Slam juniors competition.
Mackie faced a career crossroad at age 11 while working with Jim Hernandez, an assistant coach at Cal, who left for a coaching job in Hawaii. “Jim set me up with Wayne,” Mackie recalls. “Wayne and Rosie are awesome. They’re really helping me.”
In conversation Mackie oozes confidence, but he’s also a realist. Losing a tough match? “You have to take it as a learning experience,” he says. “You need to evaluate what happened in the match. Try to do better. Try to take positive things out of it. You’re going to lose matches. It happens.”
Mackie just missed a 2012 US Open doubles main draw wild card when he and Trey Strobel, of Bradenton, Fla., were defeated by Dennis Novikov of San Jose and Michael Redlicki, of Hawthorn Woods, Ill., in the USTA Boys' 19s National Championships title match earlier this month.
Asked about a five-year plan, Mackie doesn’t hesitate. “I hope to be in the top 100. I’ll be 22 years old! I better be near the top of the ladder.”
Mackie casts his “favorite player” honors on Wayne. His favorite active pro? “It would have to be Fed (Roger Federer).”
Mackie might consider the history books to find another hero with whom he has a few things in common. Don Budge was a high school player from Oakland with lots of promise, who took lessons from Tom Stow at the Claremont Hotel in the 1930s. Budge won the Grand Slam when he was 23 years old, the first player to do so. Budge, who died in 2000, was part of a centre court ceremony at Wimbledon in 1998. He was introduced as “the tall redheaded Californian with the greatest backhand ever.”
Will Mackenzie McDonald reach the pro tennis heights of Don Budge and the pantheon of tennis immortals whose names are etched on Grand Slam tournament trophies?
Only what will seem like an eternity of grinding court time will tell. But Mackie has something no longer available to past tennis gods — the exhilaration of youth and possibilities. “If it works out, it works out,” he says with equanimity. Now there’s youth and wisdom packed into one cool (talented) teenager.