MacKenzie McDonald turned pro less than three years ago, entered the top 100 in July of last year, and currently stands at No. 81. This is his fourth showing in the main draw of a major. He now holds a winning record of 5-4 after defeating Andrey Rublev, 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, on Monday at the Australian Open. He is the 2016 NCAA singles champion (UCLA) is from California. He is 23 years old.
The paragraph above is probably necessary when talking about McDonald because he is simply not well-known. At least, not yet. In my piece on him during Wimbledon, I referred to him as one of the underrated overachievers. Even during his unexpected run to the fourth round out of nowhere at Wimbledon, he received very little attention. He is not a big and tall guy, and he has neither a booming serve nor a shot that sticks out as formidable weapon.
But he can move, ultra-fast… He can return like a machine… His on-court IQ is sky high… And he has Borg-like composure on the court.
Thus, his successful match record in majors for a newcomer and his unwavering ranking in the 75-to-85 range since he entered the top 100 in July. McDonald has been a steady riser for a while: 400s in 2015, 300s in 2016, 200s in 2017, top 100 in 2018. A solid spring season could elevate him into the top 50.
How did McDonald eliminate yet another opponent more “acclaimed” than him? With a well-executed game plan for two and a half sets, perseverance after a major glitch in the third set, and cool-headedness under pressure against an opponent who drastically elevated his level as the fourth set progressed and put the heat on the American. And he did so, while nobody was paying attention (Andy Murray’s match started before this one ended)… just the way MacKenzie likes it.
This was going to be a tough matchup for Rublev. McDonald gets a lot of balls back and does not engage in the habit of giving gifts. The American’s game plan also included attacking the Russian’s second serve. By that I mean, returning-and-volleying, literally! It meant that he would catch the ball on the rise on returns and take risks. This meant that he would make some “unforced” errors on second-serve returns, naturally, and he did, but it also meant that he would jam Rublev right after the Russian served and pressure him to go for more on his second serve to avoid the heat.
Rublev double-faulted four times in the first set. More importantly, it led to the only break of the set in the seventh game, when McDonald hit another rock-solid return on break point. Rublev, expecting McDonald to approach the net behind the return again (McDonald did not, this time), tried to nail a big forehand and framed it for an error.
McDonald stayed relentless in his plan. He broke Rublev’s serve again in the first game of the second set when Rublev double-faulted twice in a row to hand a break point to the American, and McDonald attacked again on the second-serve return, causing Rublev to miss the passing shot. Then, serving at 2-1, McDonald played his first mediocre game of the match, committing two backhand unforced errors, which allowed Rublev to get back on serve. That was the first only glimmer of light for Rublev before he found himself down a break again and lost the second set, 6-4.
It did not help that Rublev played the first two sets with a 45.5 first-serve percentage and committed eight double faults. The former stat is entirely on Andrey, but the latter was partially caused by McDonald’s excellent return performance. MacKenzie gets it done the “un-flashy” way, you see. In the first two sets, he committed only five unforced errors during the baseline rallies – reminder: I do my own counting of unforced errors – and recorded zero double faults!
Rublev, who actually played at a fair level outside of his first-serve performance, was forced to work hard in order to squeeze errors from the American or hit outright winners.
When McDonald got a break point at 2-2 in the third, it looked like the die was cast for him to cruise to a straight-set victory. Little did anyone know that we would have about 20 minutes of strangeness in an otherwise straightforward match. At 30-40 on Rublev’s serve in that game, McDonald played a great point, setting the pattern up for a great inside-out forehand approach shot. Rublev, on the stretch, pulled one of the best backhand passing shots of the tournament so far, saving the break point. He eventually held and led 3-2.
At the game change, McDonald received a medical time-out and his right foot examined. I am not sure if it had anything to do with the uncharacteristic dip in his game that marked the next three games, because McDonald is not one to manifest pain on the court even if he fells it. There was not a visible sign of hampered movement either once the match resumed. I suspect he may have been mentally rattled, but it is pure speculation on my part.
In any case, ‘something’ went wrong after that fifth game. Leading 30-0 in the at 2-3, McDonald committed three double faults – his first three of the match! – in the next four points and lost his serve. In the blink of an eye, Rublev won the following two games and extended the match to a fourth set. If you see McDonald lead the unforced error count, do not get the wrong impression. That is only because of these three games at the end of the third set, plus the understandable amount errors he made on second-serve returns when taking risks to attack Rublev as part of his game plan, as noted above.
Both players left the court. A few minutes later when play resumed, Rublev, who had the momentum completely tilted in his favor at the time, played a horrible game out of nowhere, making three forehand unforced errors. As usual, it makes one reconsider the wisdom of taking these minutes-long breaks between sets for the player with the momentum, and the tactical (but not necessarily ethical) savvy of the player using them to break the momentum of the opponent.
Rublev did play his best tennis the rest of the set though, serving at 69% (46% in the first three sets) for the set and cutting down the double faults to zero. He also made four unforced errors only after the first game. He deservedly got the break back, only to see it slip away again when McDonald played two stellar return games in a row. Rublev barely escaped the first break at 3-3, pulling some great counterpunch shots and saving two break points in the process. But he could not escape the second one at 4-4 when McDonald played yet another methodical return game in which he earned the break, only losing one point. McDonald closed out the match, holding his serve at love.
In the second round, McDonald will face last year’s Australian Open finalist, sixth-seeded Marin Cilic. McDonald earned his first main-draw win at the majors a year ago in Melbourne. A year later, he will look for his sixth win in majors in the same town and the same tournament.