For Mackenzie McDonald, the end of Wimbledon could be a beginning

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — It was an end for the kid, Mackenzie McDonald, at Wimbledon. But in truth it was a beginning, a strong one, a step forward in a tennis career of possibility.

“He’s going to have a chance to do well,” said Milos Raonic.

He didn’t do that well on Monday. Which wasn’t a surprise. A former finalist, the No. 13 seed, a man with a thundering serve — there was a 138 mph clocking — Raonic beat McDonald, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-2.

But McDonald did well in his first Wimbledon, getting through the first week, making it to the fourth round, being a part of Manic Monday with the top guns, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.

Which maybe wasn’t a surprise either. “He’s solid from the back,” said Raonic, meaning the backcourt.

“I thought I played some really good tennis this week,” 23-year-old Michael Mackenzie Lowe McDonald said in reflection. “Yeah. Just excited. Hopefully it just keeps going.”

McDonald lives and trains in Florida now, at the U.S. Tennis Association complex. But he was born and grew up in Piedmont, Calif., taking lessons from Rosie Bareis and Wayne Ferreira, a 1994 Wimbledon quarterfinalist who is from South Africa but resides in Northern California.

“I used to practice really early in the morning, 6:30,” said McDonald. “Three times a week. I remember in first grade doing it with Rosie. It was a lot of hours. She would sit on a milk carton and drop balls. She was tough on me.”

As we’ve heard, becoming a champion is not easy.

“We had all these running drills,” McDonald remembered. “And jump rope.”

McDonald went to UCLA, won the 2016 NCAA singles champion and then, at 5-foot-10 in a sport with more and more big men, turned pro. As expected, it has been a learning process. Also, against the 6-foot-5 Raonic, a guessing process, wondering where the next ball would land.

“Placement and speed,” said McDonald of what makes Raonic’s serves so effective. “Honestly I had never faced a server like that before. I feel like I’m a good returner, but I have never felt so uncomfortable out there returning.

“I didn’t have one break point. I have never played a match where I have never had a break point before.”

It would be like a batter coming up from Triple A and facing Nolan Ryan. A 138 mph serve by Raonic? “I’ve never faced anything like that,” McDonald confirmed.

But he did face it, did make to the second week, did get to drink in the atmosphere on Middle Sunday, when no fans are allowed and the All England Lawn Tennis Club virtually belongs to the contestants.

Sunday was really cool," said McDonald. “I hadn’t obviously experienced anything like that. It was nice to have a relaxing day.”

With his name, McDonald would fit in at next week’s British Open golf tournament at Carnoustie, Scotland.

“I’m 25 percent Scottish,” said McDonald about his heritage, “25 percent English and half Chinese.”

The UCLA coach, Billy Martin, a onetime Tour player, told USA Today’s Dan Wolken that he has known McDonald since McDonald was 7 years old and playing in events with Martin’s son. It didn’t hurt that McDonald’s father, Mike, went to UCLA.

A writer asked McDonald whether he or other players took any aspect of Federer’s game after watching the world's No. 1 player.

“I have learned from him,” said McDonald, “but I haven’t studied him ... He’s obviously a great player. He’s efficient, moves well, serves well, does everything the best. So I mean, there is a lot to take from him. I mean, specifically nothing.”

You have or you don’t. Asking others how Federer does it would be like asking how Picasso did it.

How did Mackenzie McDonald do it at his first Wimbledon?

“It’s really a dream come true,” he said. “I hope it’s just a start.”


On Wimbledon’s idle Sunday, the World Cup remains very large

By Art Spander

LONDON — Yes, they’re still holding a tennis tournament here, meaning the London borough of Merton, SW 19 in the postal code (nothing goes ZIP in this country).

Middle Sunday, as it is known, is when the lawns of Wimbledon get a rest.

Maybe the English people, too.

“England’s dreaming,” was headline on the huge wrap-around front page of the The Sunday Times. Not about weaseling out of Brexit, two years after voting to get out of the European Union. Dreaming, of course, about the World Cup.

The dreamers, however, do not include the executives of the All England Club, who are doing their best — and failing — to hold their event in a vacuum, not allowing the soccer matches to be shown on Wimbledon’s big-screen television outside Court One.

On Saturday, when Rafael Nadal led the way into the second week, the fans who didn’t flee Wimbledon to catch England’s 2-0 quarterfinal win over Sweden in nearby pubs peered at their tablets or iPhones anywhere the game was being streamed.

The roars that carried around the grounds had nothing to with service aces or great forehands. They were for the goals some 1,500 miles away in Russia by Dele Alli and Harry Maguire.

It’s their event, Wimbledon, and certainly they’re allowed to do with it what they want.

On a smaller scale, there have been teams in America that refused to permit the TV sets in their stadiums to be switched to a sport other than their own.  

England, Britain, is like an early 1950s United States. In the Kensington and Chelsea section, maybe a mile from famed Harrods department store, young men — some of them quite wealthy, obviously — rev the engines of their Ferraris. Aston-Martins, Jags and Benzes, tearing out in a squeal of rubber. You might call it a royal version of American Graffiti.

That isn’t the reason many of the players and media, who would stay at the then very convenient Gloucester Hotel, have shifted to Wimbledon, roughly eight miles to the southwest. The stars, Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, need convenience and, in these days of aggressive fans and social media, privacy. They rent homes not far from the tennis courts.

Twenty-five years ago, you might go to dinner at a late-night eatery on the corner of Gloucester and Harrington, Dino’s — it’s gone, but the neon sign still clings to the building — and see Gabriela Sabatini. Now she would be sequestered in SW 19.

The World Cup always interjects itself into Wimbledon every four years, but Wimbledon never even blinked. Until now. Until England, a surprise as the Cup moved along, suddenly had a genuine chance to win for the first time since 1966.

That final was in London, against Germany. A mere generation after the end of World War II, 21 years. Emotions were high in England, still recovering from the Blitz. An editorial in the Daily Mail the morning of the championship game began, “If Germany beat us this afternoon in our national game, we can always point out to them twice we have beaten them at theirs.”

Sport and politics never are inseparable. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to glorify Nazi Germany. The success of the Boca Juniors helped keep Peron in power in Argentina. The happy days in Russia with the Cup were well scripted.

“This may be the best of the World Cups,” wrote Matt Dickinson in the London Times, of this competition in Russia. “It might also be a ‘well-scripted charade whose roots go back to Berlin in 1936.’” He was quoting Gary Kasparov, the chess champion and vehement opponent of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

”The football here,” said another Putin critic, “has been Putin’s friend.”

The Game transcends all. It keeps politicians in power. It keeps Wimbledon on edge. The Championships are an afterthought to the success of the England World Cup team.


Wimbledon: It’s your baby, Serena

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — It’s your baby, Serena. This Wimbledon is all but yours. There may be a week to go, but most of the names and virtually all of the top ten seeds among the women have gone.

Underdogs are fine. In football and basketball, not tennis, a sport as dependent on name recognition as a solid forehand. Nobody wants Roger Federer to lose, especially tournament sponsors.

Serena — Mrs. Williams, according to the 18th-century concepts of the All-England Club, even if her husband’s name is Alexis Ohanian — came into this Wimbledon with a gift seed of No. 25 because she had missed so many tournaments after giving birth.

Which doesn’t mean anything. As shown by the results of the top-seeded players.

When No. 1 seed and No. 1 ranked Simona Halep was defeated, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, by Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan on Saturday only one of the women’s top ten seeds remained. And we’re only through the third round.

Maybe Steffi Graf could be accepted as a late entry. Or Martina Navratilova, who won nine times from 1978-1990, and is now on the grounds doing TV work. Sure, she’s not young anymore, but she’s still famous.

Tennis purists know about Hsieh, who with Peng Shuai of China won the 2013 Wimbledon’s doubles. But to be successful, a sport must bring in the masses. As the late Bill Veeck said about the so-called National Pastime, “If you had to depend on baseball fans for your support, you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day.”

Wimbledon, the Championships, has been in business since 1877. That doesn’t mean everyone is paying attention. It may be the oldest, most important tennis tournament in the world, but it’s still a tennis tournament, not the World Cup or the Super Bowl.

The players make the event as much as the event makes the players.

So with Halep, and defending champ Garbiñe Muguruza and Serena’s older sister, Venus, having been defeated all too early — along with Caroline Wozniacki and two-time winner Petra Kvitova — it could be Serena, 36, who’s the lady of them all.

Halep won the French Open a month ago. She went from a feat on clay to feet of clay on Wimbledon’s grass. Hsieh throws a knuckleball, in a matter of speaking, drop shots and slices, and her game — along with the Wimbledon lawn on Court No. 1 — confused Halep.

“I know she’s mixing the rhythm,” said Halep, who’s from Rumania. “She’s playing everything. It was really hard on grass court to do better. Still I had 5-3 in the third set. I had match point. It didn’t go my way today.”

Certain people can play hard courts. Certain people can play clay. Certain people can play grass. Great players, Graf, Navratilova, Chris Evert, Serena, won on all three.

“The ball is not bouncing two times in a row the same,” said Halep. “The difficulty was bigger today because of her game.”

Not that Hsieh, 32, doesn’t have her mental hang-ups. When she was serving for the match, Hsieh hit a fault, then paused before tossing up another ball.

“Because last year I play against (Lucie) Safarova, then I have two match points,” she recalled. “I make double-fault. Then have one match point. Double fault again. So today, I have a fault. Oh my God, not going to happen again. People was laughing at me. I need to cool down.”

Hsieh had injuries to both ankles, forcing her into a brief retirement two years ago. “I nearly thought of stopping tennis completely,” she said on her return in December 2016. “But here I am.”

There she was, ousting Halep and making a mockery of the seeding.

Serena was idle Saturday and, as is tradition, there is no play at Wimbledon on the middle Sunday, so she will be well rested for her fourth-round match Monday.

A seven-time champion, Serena was asked whether, with so many top players being knocked out, this would be an excellent chance for another title.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think a lot of the top players are losing. But they’re losing to girls who are playing outstanding. If anything, it shows me every moment that I can’t underestimate any of these ladies.”

Nor do any of those ladies dare underestimate Serena Williams



The answer always is Wimbledon

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — The answer is Wimbledon, no matter the question.

Grass courts that mystify (unless you’re Roger Federer)? Wimbledon.

Tournament often as crazy as it is important? Wimbledon.

Event the players would never criticize even though it should be criticized? You got it, Wimbledon. 

On Day 5 of Wimbledon 142 — yes, it started in 1877, but there was the interruption called World War II — Roger Federer and Serena Williams kept winning.

Venus Williams and Sam Querrey failed to keep winning. 

And the stories in the dailies that weren’t about Dominika Cibulkova’s thigh slapping or England’s World Cup quarterfinal were about an oversize balloon in the form of Donald Trump wearing a diaper that will fly over London

Ready? Your serve. And with this heat wave, 85 degrees on Friday, remember to stay hydrated.

Federer, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 over Jan-Lennard Struff and Serena, 7-5, 7-6 over Kristina Mladenovic, stayed on course. So did John Isner, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 over Radu Albot.

But after taking the first set, Querrey was beaten by the flashy French guy, Gael Monfils, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. And Venus, 38 years old, lost to Father Time, and to 26-year-old Kiki Bertens, 6-2, 6-7, 8-6.

“There always are more upsets at Wimbledon,” said Querrey, who a year ago had one of those, beating Andy Murray. “I think it’s because of the grass. It’s such a different surface.”

Whether Bertens defeating Venus could be labeled an upset is judgmental. Venus did win Wimbledon five times and did get to the final in 2017 before being whipped by Garbine Muguruza — who, talk about upsets, lost this year in the second round.

But Venus sadly is starting to look the age she is, eliminated in the first round of both the Australian Open and French Open and now being eliminated in the second round at Wimbledon after losing the first set in all three matches. 

“Just ran out of time in the end,” said Venus, an ironic comment that now could apply to her career as much as to the match. Not that she ever would even hint of stepping away.

“The plan,” said Venus when asked about disappointment, “is to go out and try to win the matches. You just go out and regroup afterwards. You know, I think she was just a little bit luckier than I was in the end.”

Johanna Konta of England wasn’t as concerned with fortune as she was with Cibulkova slapping her thighs during the Thursday match that Cibulkova won, 6-3, 6-4.

“Jo complained to the umpire about me slapping my leg when waiting to receive,” Cibulkova told The Sun. “But I have been doing that in my whole career, and I see no reason to stop. That is what I told the umpire. That is the first time anyone has ever complained.”

Konta is No. 24 in the rankings and Cibulkova is No. 31, so the result could be called an upset. For sure, Konta, a back-page tabloid star in this, her homeland, was upset emotionally.

“She’s very intense,” Konta said of Cibulkova, a Slovakian. “She was slapping her thigh. It was like clapping. I asked the umpire if it would be the same if someone else externally, from the crowd, would clap between first and second serves.”

No one’s been clapping of late for the achievements, or lack of same, of American men at Wimbledon or the other three Grand Slam tournaments.

“I feel like things come in waves,” said Querrey about the inability of U.S. men to contend. Querrey did make the semis a year ago, but that was that. The last American to win a Slam was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open — 15 years ago.

“I mean, in the ‘90s we were probably the best tennis nation,” said Querrey, alluding to the days when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi. Michael Chang and Jim Courier earned titles. “You have the dominance of Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal) the last 12 years, Novak (Djokovic) and Andy (Murray). We have dropped off. Maybe in 10 years, we will have another wave.”

Or another lady who slaps her thighs waiting for a serve.


Isner on his Wimbledon marathon: ‘Whole world was captivated’

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — The plaque is still there, attached to the weathered bricks outside Court 18. John Isner saw it Thursday morning. Again.

“I didn’t stop and stare by any means,” he said. Others do. Thousands of others.

Court 18 is where Isner and Nicolas Mahut played, as the opening words of the plaque tell us, “The Longest Match.”

Not just at Wimbledon but anywhere, five sets and the match ending 70-68; 11 hours 5 minutes over three days, June 22-24, 2010. No tie-breaker in the fifth set at Wimbledon.

It was historic. It was magnificent. It was awful.

Mahut was so battered physically and mentally that it took him months to regain his strength, confidence and touch. And even the winner, Isner, had trouble recovering. Not that Isner has any regrets. 

“It was such a crazy match,” he said, “that the whole world was captivated by that match. I’m not exaggerating there.”

Not at all. Two guys played one match for three days? You've got to be kidding. We weren’t. Tennis had a landmark.

What Isner, now 33, had the last two days was another extended match, this time on Court 12, and this time much quicker, 3 hours 46 minutes. He beat Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium, 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-7 (3), 7-5.

He beat Bemelmans and that electronic linesperson, “Hawk-eye,” which on Wednesday blew a call just like a human and caused Isner to rant — until a few hours later he reflected.

“I mean, of course I’ve been in this situation before,” said Isner, about the rain that halted play in the fifth set Wednesday, “where a match was not finished, and I’m not talking about 2010.”

Although he said doesn’t mind everyone else talking about it, “because that match we played eight years ago was such a big event.”

Isner is 6-foot-10 — “If I knew I would be that tall,” said the man who was a high school center in North Carolina, “I would have stayed with basketball.” Instead he concentrated on tennis and became an All-American and NCAA tournament finalist at the University of Georgia. 

A man that tall ought to have a brilliant serve. Isner does. Against Bemelmans in the five sets, Isner recorded 64 aces, the third most ever in a match at Wimbledon. In the 11-hour match, Isner had 113 aces, Mahut 103. Which is why it lasted 11 hours. How do you break serve when you can’t return?

But like home run hitters, Isner has off days. His best at Wimbledon is the third round, where he is now. It’s not easy at his height to play those half volleys or to move around effortlessly. Not that in his career he hasn’t beaten Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

At nine, Isner is the highest seeded American in the men’s draw. He said he has developed a hang-loose attitude, not forcing the issue and remaining under control. In the French Open last month, he said “I just went out there with nothing to lose and played the big points well.”

It’s been unseasonably hot in Greater London, with temperatures reaching the mid 80s by late afternoon. The evenings are warm enough that a jacket is not needed. Maybe too warm for a man who was trying to sleep on Wednesday night while thinking of a match he already should have won.

“It was tough,” he conceded, “All the stuff is running through my head. I’m half asleep. I’m not really asleep. We have all been there. You have something weighing on you.

“But you know I didn’t feel tired today. I had a lot of adrenaline running through my body. The third day of my really long match in 2010, I thought I would feel tired and I didn’t. This is nothing like that but pretty similar.”

So the words don’t make a lot of sense. First the anger about Hawk-eye, then the rain, now the questions. Let’s return to the match against Mahut.

“After it finished,” said Isner, “it will go down in history, and I was a part of it. So I think especially the casual tennis fan, that’s what they know of me, and that’s fine. I like to think that since then I’ve done a lot of good stuff in my career to shed that lasting image.”

Good stuff, but so far nothing else worthy of a plaque on Wimbledon’s walls.

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