As Mackenzie McDonald dueled Félix Auger-Aliassime for three and a half hours in the opening round of the US Open, fans could only glimpse the time it took McDonald to his surprise win on Monday.
For both players and hundreds of other participants in the sprawling tournament, a day of play goes well beyond warming up and the competition itself. The preparation, of course, takes weeks and months as the grueling professional tennis tours for both men and women force players to aim for higher rankings to find a cheaper route at the Grand Slam tournaments.
And once they arrive in Queens, a host of new obstacles emerge as players adjust to the feel of the courts, the atmosphere of New York and the demands of one of the world's greatest sporting events.
For McDonald, the 28-year-old American, who broke into the top 50 individually in 2022 and defeated Rafael Nadal in the second round of this year's Australian Open, preparations for the US Open began on August 22 when he arrived in New York. McDonald, who is scheduled to play Croatia's Borna Gojo in the second round on Wednesday, said he trained hard for the first few days and then slowed down a bit to recover ahead of his four-set clash with Auger-Aliassime.
These practices can be repeated along with travel. Jessica Pegula, the American who placed third in women's singles, last week compared the routine on tour to Groundhog Day, the 1993 film about a man reliving a day over and over. McDonald echoed this opinion.
“Things can get monotonous week after week, locker room after locker room, hotel after hotel,” McDonald said. “It's good to have those little goals or little things that push you and make you believe that you can do better.”
Two days on the way
Two days before his opening game, McDonald couldn't just focus on his game. Before practice on Saturday, he had to drop by a fan event hosted by his racket sponsor Wilson.
His day started around 8:45 a.m. when he made his way to the lobby of his Murray Hill hotel in Manhattan. A driver and an SUV were already waiting for him, his girlfriend and his trainer when they left the hotel.
On a typical day, driving from Manhattan's east side to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park can take up to an hour in heavy traffic.
“It's never easy,” McDonald said of the drive to Queens. “Day in and day out, it definitely adds up.”
But on a Saturday morning, with light traffic and a confident driver who knew shortcuts, the trip took a brisk 21 minutes and 16 seconds.
The fast drive bought McDonald a little more time to drop off his bags before making his way to the Wilson event, where he spent about 10 minutes Half an hour of volleyball with childrenthen posed for pictures and videos.
With that obligation fulfilled, McDonald was free to focus on more intense tennis for the rest of his day, first working with a physical therapist, taking time to eat, and then practicing for two hours.
McDonald's first training session was scheduled for noon against Marcos Giron, another American player, at number 4 near Arthur Ashe Stadium. As McDonald and Giron batted back and forth, scoring points, dozens of fans turned up to watch. As their training session drew to a close, some of these fans would gather on the sidelines hoping for an autograph or photo. But McDonald didn't have time.
After shaking hands with Giron and his coach, McDonald quickly grabbed his bags and hurried off to his next practice session at a court at the opposite end of the tennis center, almost half a mile away.
To avoid players having to travel that distance through a sea of fans, the US Open has vans to take them and their coaches to the furthest away training grounds. McDonald and his coach jumped into a van, but the driver wanted to stay a few more minutes to see if other players were coming.
McDonald was already late and politely asked the driver if he could leave without waiting. In the early rounds of the tournament, when hundreds of players have to train, time on the pitch is precious.
“They definitely show the glamor of the sport on TV,” McDonald said. “It's everything behind the scenes, it's everyday life and the tournaments that we play throughout the year that really bring us to these moments.”
When McDonald got to his next training ground, it was just after 2 p.m. and the sun was shining with temperatures in the 80s. He trained for another hour before finally cooling off and returning to his hotel to rest.
On Sunday, McDonald wanted to reduce his workload to just one hour of tennis so he could be fresher for his match the next day. He still didn't know his exact playing time, but as it would likely be in the afternoon, McDonald said he hoped to have an afternoon spot on the pitch on Sunday.
He was due to play 5th place Lloyd Harris of South Africa at 4pm where McDonald was due to play the next day.
“It was a much more relaxing day for me,” McDonald said, adding that he would spend the rest of his Sunday resting, drinking fluids and “taking my mind off tennis for a while.”
But even when he's not training, McDonald says there are other ways to prepare for a game, including creating a game plan and reviewing analytics.
“The mental preparation for my game on Monday started when the draw was announced,” he said.
Before Monday's McDonald's game, 5th place had three more games scheduled, starting at 11am. With games scheduled later in the day, players often need to figure out how long each of those games will last so they can plan the ideal time to leave their hotel.
However, trying to make such predictions can be a gamble when rain or a drawn-out five-set game in the men's can delay the start time of another game. At majors, McDonald said he likes to come four hours before a game to get treatment from a physical therapist, work out with a partner for half an hour, eat lunch and then get his sports drinks and racquets ready.
“There's definitely a lot of little nuances that come with every day that you're really immersed in,” he said. “Everything is geared towards preparing me as best as possible for this game today.”
McDonald and Auger-Aliassime finally entered Court 5 at around 5:45 p.m., and after a quick warm-up, it was 5:51 p.m. when referee Jaume Campistol said, “Ready? Play.”
From the start it looked like it was going to be a long duel. It took McDonald an hour and nine minutes to win the first set in the tiebreak.
Auger-Aliassime won the second set, but McDonald came to rest after that. As McDonald and Auger-Aliassime continued to play, cheers erupted from Arthur Ashe Stadium and could also be heard on Court 5. Sometime in the fourth set after the set, Auger-Aliassime appeared to complain to the referee about the noise from Ashe.
Finally, after more than three hours on the court, McDonald prevailed, winning the last five points of the fourth set, winning 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 and moving into second Set before rounds.
Before his win, McDonald said that every win on tour motivates him. The urge to develop further drives him, he said, through long training sessions, commutes to work and extensive travel.
“I really want to win a title,” said McDonald, who reached a singles final in his career and lost to Italy's Jannik Sinner at the 2021 Citi Open in Washington, DC. “I think every week is your chance. Week can be that week that can change things, and I think that dream is what we're all chasing.”
And after he defeated Auger-Aliassime, the routine of mental and physical preparation for Round 2 began again.