UCLA men’s tennis star Mackie McDonald rarely shows emotion.
Down, up, ranked, unranked, the junior plays every point the same. His robotic tenacity makes him one of the best, if not the best, collegiate tennis players in the country.
In all likelihood, McDonald will leave UCLA after this season to compete as a singles player in the pros (he played at the BNP Paribas Open pro tournament this week in Indian Wells, California). But is he ready? Yes.
I don’t want to make unfair comparisons, but McDonald reminds me a little bit of Stephen Curry, the undersized point guard from the Golden State Warriors that has taken the NBA by storm these past couple seasons. McDonald certainly isn’t the most physically intimidating player; he’s 5’10” and weighs 150 pounds on a good day. But McDonald’s physical dominance isn’t what’s going to make him successful in the pros. It’s his mental game.
We saw this after the All-American was forced to miss the first three dual-matches of the season due to a wrist fracture he suffered mid-December. McDonald returned to play against the No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs Jan. 30, his first time playing competitively since the ATP Knoxville Challenger in November. McDonald faced Georgia’s Austin Smith at the No. 1 singles spot.
He came out sluggish, dropping the first set to Smith. But McDonald’s shoulders never slouched. His walk never stalled. He didn’t throw his racket or yell. He was calm. McDonald took the next two sets handily, and he hasn’t stopped since then.
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So far this season, McDonald has been awarded the Pac-12 Player of the Week three times and has moved from unranked to No. 9 in singles as of Friday. He was ranked using the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) as the best men’s college tennis player in the country this week. and he has only dropped one singles match this season to Virginia’s Ryan Shane.
His greatest skill attribute is his accuracy – again, like Curry. McDonald is able to place the ball with absolute precision, often enabling him to get his opponents to tire quickly. He’s not the strongest, but he commands the court when he plays.
One of McDonald’s most telling victories of his future success came mid-February when he downed Stanford’s 6’5”, 205-pound Tom Fawcett – ranked No. 4 at the time – in straight sets. Fawcett is a bigger, stronger player, fitting the pro physique much better than McDonald does. But the dominance in the match proved that McDonald doesn’t need to conform to the physical standard.
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It’s a relative rarity for a collegiate tennis player to leave early for professional play. Only eight former UCLA tennis players have left school to enter the pros from 2000 to 2016, the most recent being Marcos Giron, who played for the Bruins from 2012-2014. Giron has returned to become one of the team’s volunteer coaches.
Only time and match experience will truly prove whether McDonald can succeed in the pros. But – there’s no question about it – he’s got the mental capacity and raw skill to compete at the next level. I wouldn’t be surprised if he withdrew from UCLA after this season; in fact, I’d encourage it.
Email Levin at [email protected] or tweet him @Charles_J_Levin.