Mackenzie McDonald departed Roland Garros last year with a devastating injury. In a doubles match, the American tore his right proximal hamstring tendon. Returning to health was a massive undertaking.
“It took a really serious team and a lot of hard work. The surgery was pretty big. I have a massive scar underneath my butt and I wasn’t able to walk for the first month-and-a-half, two months. Time was going by really slowly,” McDonald said. “I didn’t leave my apartment. I was barely able to shower, go to the bathroom. I couldn’t walk.”
The injury caused the former UCLA Bruin, who won the 2016 NCAA Singles and Doubles titles, to lose a lot of muscle mass in his leg.
“I was able to put one pound down on my foot lightly tapping [it at] around 10 per cent. Then the next week it was 20, the next week it was 30, 35, 40. Then it was a one-pound weight three times a week. Then it was two pounds, then it was three. It was gruelling. You make one mistake and you can rupture it again,” McDonald said. “I had to be very patient, something that really taught me a lot. From there, you just slowly creep back. The [work on] court goes from hitting from the centre to two feet around you to three feet around you. We took every step extremely carefully.
“We worked really hard and I really pushed myself… to keep knowing that I was ready for the next step. I can do everything with my hamstring now. All good.”
McDonald’s body will be put to the ultimate test on Wednesday when he faces 12-time champion Rafael Nadal in the second round at Roland Garros.
“[It is] probably one of the biggest challenges you can face in sports, playing him here. I think this year I have the best chance of any year,” McDonald said. “I think with the balls, with the speed, with how much lower it’s bouncing [that will help]. I think I’m playing the best clay-court tennis I have played and he hasn’t played too much this year. I think it’s a tough challenge, but I have to believe that I can beat him.”
Fifteen months ago, McDonald faced a gruelling rehab that kept him out of competition for the rest of 2019. He tried to stay occupied by taking five UCLA classes and doing media work. At the US Open, he created video content for the tournament. While the American was working hard to get healthy, the idea of positioning himself to play the likes of Nadal at a Grand Slam was far from his mind.
“Honestly it was hard to even think about that. My injury was so severe in my opinion that I was just like, ‘I really hope I’m going to get back.’ I wasn’t on Tour for a crazy long time. It hurt not playing tennis for that long. I never had that experience,” McDonald said. “I still was losing my mind a little bit. I love tennis, I love playing. Honestly I can’t even tell you how happy I am to be back. To be here, getting a win yesterday in singles, competing in doubles even though I lost [was amazing]. I know what it’s like on the worst end of it now, so tomorrow will be fun.”
Defeating Nadal on the Parisian terre battue has proven nearly impossible over the years. In 15 second-round matches at Roland Garros, the Spaniard has only lost one set.
“I’m going to keep doing what I have been doing in practice and in the matches. I’ve been playing well,” McDonald said. “I’m just going to keep focussing on myself a little bit. Obviously there are areas you don’t want to put yourself in with him and his game, so I’m going to try my best to work around that.”
The 25-year-old won’t take this opportunity for granted. Not long ago, McDonald was unable to walk. Now he gets to play an all-time great on Court Philippe-Chatrier, one of the grandest stages in tennis. Most importantly, his leg injury is a thing of the past.
“I definitely think I’ve moved past it. It’s extremely unfortunate what happened last year. I wouldn’t really wish that upon anyone. It was a really tough situation, honestly. But I really persevered through it,” McDonald said. “I did an incredible job to even get back to this point. I don’t think a lot of players would even be back as quick as I was, for sure. To be playing exactly if not in better condition than I was, even last year, too, I’m going to pat myself on the back for that.”