ST. HELENA, Calif. – Cal tennis fan Brad Gilbert stopped by the Meadowood Resort on Saturday to watch the youngest and most local USTA junior boy compete on the second day of the Land Rover Napa Valley Tennis Classic.
Fifteen-year-old Mackenzie McDonald, who comes from the same Northern California town as Gilbert was raised 90 miles southeast in Piedmont, met his match against Illinois’ best player, Dennis Nevolo, falling 6-1, 6-2, on a day that saw the USTA’s eight top juniors win five singles matches against six of the nation’s best collegiate teams.
Gilbert said despite the result, McDonald, who is referred to as Mackie by his coaches and teammates, is still one U.S. tennis fans should keep an eye on in the future.
"It was good to finally get a sense of his game," said Gilbert of McDonald, who won the 14s Easter Bowl Spring Nationals in 2009. "He’s just 15 so the next 18 months will tell a lot. But from what I saw, I would be surprised if he doesn’t become a top player."
Nevolo, a junior who finished with 27 wins as the Fighting Illini’s No. 1 player last year, proved too strong physically for McDonald. "It was a tough match for me," said McDonald, who fell to 1-1 in the round-robin formatted tournament. "I mean, he’s No. 1 for Illinois. I felt like he was pressuring me and overpowered me. That was actually my game plan going in against him since there were no expectations for me. But I wasn’t able to execute it."
Gilbert agreed: "The guy he’s playing is 21 and just physically too strong. He just got overpowered."
USTA coaches Jose Higueras, Jay Berger and Ricardo Acuna watched the match and were even able to go on court during the match and coach McDonald and the other players, something new for them but not new for the other college coaches.
"That’s one of the great things about this event," said USC assistant coach George Husack. "We get a chance to see some of these juniors up close and actually be on the same court with them. It’s good to be in front of them. They see what I’m like on the court interacting with my players and I can also see how they’re reacting to the coaching that is going on with them with some of the USTA coaches."
He continued: "I think the event also shows the college guys that these juniors aren’t messing around. They aren’t here just because it’s a great opportunity. They’re here to win."
The USTA juniors were led by Jack Sock, Alexios Halebian and the two Mitchell’s, Krueger and Frank, who each won on Saturday and have two wins in two days. The final day of round-robin play is Sunday with the winners of each of the eight flights advancing to a single-elimination, 10-point tiebreak tournament.
Florida coach Jeremy Bayon was in agreement with the other seven collegiate coaches in his high praise of the event. "I think it’s a great idea and it’s a great format," Bayon said. "It shows that the USTA and the college coaches can work together. Most of the freshmen and sophomores still know the juniors so it’s bring a great atmosphere. It’s good because it shows how good junior tennis is in the U.S. It shows that college tennis is also at such a high level."
Count veteran Kentucky coach Dennis Emery as one in favor of the event. He couldn’t stop raving about the event. He said he got the coveted invite from Cal coach Peter Wright after Georgia had to drop out. "I think it’s a really unique event and I think it has so much potential to get even bigger," Emery said. "I think it’s great getting to see the USTA coaches on the court with their players. It’s a innovation that they don’t have in any other setting. I think that’s what makes it such a big thing for the USTA."
Emery said he’s seen firsthand the positive support the USTA has recently given to college tennis. "I don’t think there’s been any question there’s a huge turn in the way the USTA is approaching college tennis," Emery said. "As a 33-year Division I veteran, I can tell you it’s something that’s been long-awaited. It’s been a very serious commitment to college tennis on behalf of the USTA. I went to a coaching clinic in June in Boca and the entire program with Patrick (McEnroe) and Jose (Higueras) and Jay Berger was fascinating.
"Just the whole thing is on a good path right now. It’s a group of guys that I think understands that it doesn’t matter where the players are coming from but that they’re coming prepared and ready to play. It’s a much less territorial thing than in the past."
Emery continued: "The thing that I’m most impressed with is that the juniors are not getting overpowered. I thought that the college guys would be able to come in and overpower them with their serves and their aggressive play. But that’s just not the case. I’ve been very impressed with how technically sound these junior players are. They play a lot of balls. I think the reason they are able to compete so well is because they are so technically sound. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen."
The winner of the tournament will receive a USTA-sponsored wild card into a USTA Pro Circuit event that is yet to be determined.
The juniors were selected by USTA Player Development based on ATP rankings (if applicable), national rankings and results, and a selection of younger players for developmental purposes.
DAY 2: Saturday’s Singles Results
Eric Quigley (Kentucky) def. Carlos Cueto (Cal), 7-6 (5), 6-2
Bjorn Fratangelo (USTA, Pittsburgh, Pa.) def. Raymond Sarmiento (USC), 6-0, 6-3
Dennis Nevolo (Illinois) def. Mackenzie McDonald (USTA, Piedmont, Calif.), 6-1, 6-2
JT Sundling (USC) def. Maks Gold (Kentucky), 6-0, 6-2
Vasko Mladenov (Texas) def. Bob Van Overbeek (Florida), 7-6 (4), 6-1
Abe Souza (Illinois) def. Pedro Zerbini (Cal), 6-4, 7-5
Bruno Abdelnour (Illinois) def. Hunter Harrington (USTA, Spartanburg, S.C.), 6-2, 6-3
Alex Musialek (Kentucky) def. Marcos Giron (USTA, Thousand Oaks, Calif.), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4
Ed Corrie (Texas) def. Nick Andrews (Cal), 6-1, 6-4
Mitchell Krueger (USTA, Aledo, Texas) def. David Holiner (Texas), 6-3, 7-6 (4)
Alexandre Lacroix (Florida) def. Johnny Hamui (Illinois), 6-2, 6-2
Jack Sock (USTA, Lincoln, Neb.) def. Christoffer Konigsfeldt (Cal), 6-4, 6-2
Mitchell Frank (USTA, Annandale, Va.) def. Anthony Rossi (Kentucky), 6-4, 6-1
Daniel Nguyen (USC) def. Jean Andersen (Texas), 2-6, 7-5, 6-1
Alexios Halebian (USTA, Glendale, Calif.) def. Nassim Slilam (Florida), 6-3, 6-2
Sekou Bangoura (Florida) def. Jaak Poldma (USC), 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3)
DAY 2: Saturday’s Doubles Results
Nick Andrews / Christoffer Konigsfeldt (Cal) def. Mitchell Krueger / Bjorn Fratangelo (USTA), 8-6
Alexandre Lacroix / Nassim Slilam (Florida), def. Mitchell Frank / Jack Sock (USTA), 8-4
Zack Gilbert / Sky Lovell (Cal) def. Marcos Giron / Alexios Halebian (USTA), 9-8 (3)
JT Sundling / Raymond Sarmiento (USC) def. Mackenzie McDonald / Hunter Harrington (USTA), 8-4
DAY 3: Sunday’s Schedule
Alex Musialek (Kentucky) v. Vasko Mladenov (Texas)
Bob Van Overbeek (Florida) v. Marcos Giron (USTA)
Alexios Halebian (USTA) v. Jean Andersen (Texas)
Jaak Poldma (USC) v. David Holiner (Texas)
Sekou Bangoura (Florida) v. Mitchell Krueger (USTA)
Ed Corrie (Texas) v. Bruno Abdelnour (Illinois)
Christoffer Konigsfeldt (Cal) v. Johnny Hamui (Illinois)
Eric Quigley (Kentucky) v. Raymond Sarmiento (USC)
Pedro Zerbini (Cal) v. Anthony Rossi (Kentucky)
Daniel Nguyen (USC) v. Nassim Slilam (Florida)
Nick Andrews (Cal) v. Hunter Harrington (USTA)
Alexandre Lacroix (Florida) v. Jack Sock (USTA)
Carlos Cueto (Cal) v. Bjorn Fratangelo (USTA)
Abe Souza (Illinois) v. Mitchell Frank (USTA)
Dennis Nevolo (Illinois) v. Maks Gold (Kentucky)
JT Sundling (USC) v. MacKenzie McDonald (USTA)