Thursday, September 25, 2014

Potential star Donaldson gains 'special' victory

Jared Donaldson, 17, beat injured Wayne Odesnik on Wednesday in Napa
to reach his first Challenger quarterfinal. Photo by Paul Bauman
    NAPA, Calif. -- They were two of the few Americans in a stadium far from home.
   The scene was the 5,500-seat Center Court at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, known as the "Cathedral of Argentine Tennis" in a nation that has produced Guillermo Vilas, Gabriela Sabatini, David Nalbandian and Juan Martin del Potro.
   Wayne Odesnik, a lucky loser and the only U.S. player in the draw, was facing Nalbandian at night in the first round of the 2012 Copa Claro, a clay-court tournament on the ATP World Tour.
   In the stands was Jared Donaldson, an obscure 15-year-old player from that noted tennis hotbed of Rhode Island, with his father, Courtney. They recently had moved to Buenos Aires so the lanky Jared could train on clay and work on his movement and point construction.
   Two and a half years later, Donaldson faced Odesnik on the court Wednesday at the beautiful Napa Valley Country Club and advanced to his first Challenger quarterfinal.
   It won't go down as a classic. Donaldson converted only 35 percent of his first serves, and Odesnik retired with an inflamed left big toe with Donaldson leading 6-2, 3-1, 30-0. But it was poignant for Donaldson.
Odesnik, shown Wednesday, played a 2012
match in Buenos Aires that Donaldson attend-
ed as a 15-year-old. Photo by Paul Bauman
  Odesnik won the 2007 Sacramento Challenger at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club but was suspended for one year in 2010 for importing human growth hormone into Australia.
   The 28-year-old left-hander from Florida might be the only American man or woman who lists clay as his or her favorite surface. He lost to Nalbandian, the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up and former world No. 3 who retired last year at 31 after numerous injuries, 6-2, 6-3 in Buenos Aires. 
   "It's funny, actually," Donaldson recalled. "When I was down there, I didn't know I was going to be as good as I am now or as good as I could be. I was just playing tennis and looking up to a lot of those guys playing down there and saying, 'Another American is in Argentina; he's playing.' I thought that was really cool. Now that I have the chance to play these guys, it's pretty special for me."
   Also advancing Wednesday was Liam Broady, a 20-year-old left-hander from Great Britain who defeated 2013 Napa semifinalist Alex Kuznetsov of Tampa, Fla., 7-6 (6), 6-4. Kuznetsov had a set point in the tiebreaker on Broady's serve and led 4-1 (one service break) in the second set.
   In Friday's quarterfinals, Donaldson will play hard-serving Julian Lenz, a 21-year-old German qualifier, and Broady will meet second-seeded Tim Smyczek of Tampa, Fla. The other quarterfinal matchups will be determined today.
   Under the tutelage of former top-25 player Taylor Dent, the 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter) Donaldson suddenly has emerged as perhaps the United States' top teenage prospect at 17. He and junior rival Collin Altamirano of Sacramento trained with Roger Federer for two weeks last December in Dubai, where the Swiss star has a residence.
   At No. 342 in the world, Donaldson is the third-youngest player in the top 350 after No. 140 Borna Coric of Croatia and No. 149 Alexander Zverev of Germany. Donaldson will turn 18 on Oct. 9, the 6-foot-1 (1.85-meter) Coric on Nov. 14 and the 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Zverev next April 20.
   Donaldson won three consecutive Futures titles (in four weeks) in June and qualified for his first main draw on the elite ATP World Tour in Washington, D.C., before losing to 30-year-old American  Rajeev Ram 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5 in the opening round.
   Donaldson turned pro last month just before the U.S. Open, allowing him to pocket $35,754 for losing to 20th-seeded Gael Monfils of France 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the first round as a wild card at Flushing Meadows. Monfils advanced to the quarterfinals and had two match points against Federer in a five-set loss.
   Donaldson trained in Buenos Aires for 2 1/2 years and said it helped his game "tremendously." Andy Murray left his native Scotland at 15 and practiced on clay in sunny Barcelona, Spain, for the same amount of time.   
   Shortly after Donaldson returned to the United States early last year, he reached the final of the USTA Boys 18 National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. Donaldson fell to Altamirano, who's 10 months older, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the title match but routed him in their next meeting less than a year later, 6-2, 6-1, en route to the title of the $15,000 Oklahoma City Futures.
   "At Kalamazoo, when I lost in the finals to him, it was really my breakout tournament. Same thing for him. I was never really the best (junior). I was good, but I wasn't the best or even close to it, to be honest. But I've been working really, really hard because I've always wanted to be really, really good," the candid Donaldson said of his turnaround against Altamirano.
   "My goal is to win Slams eventually, so I've been working really, really hard, and I've just been trying to be a professional my entire career. Even when I wasn't labeled a professional, I was training like one and had the mindset of a professional."
   Donaldson began working with Dent last November after attending his academy in Fountain Valley in the Los Angeles area.
   The affable Dent is the 33-year-old son of Australian Phil Dent, who lost to Jimmy Connors in the final of the 1974 Australian Open, and American Betty Ann (Grubb) Stuart, who reached the women's doubles final in the 1977 U.S. Open with transsexual Renee Richards. Taylor Dent is married to former WTA player Jennifer Hopkins.
   Dent, a rare serve-and-volleyer, reached a career-high No. 21 in the world in 2005 before undergoing three back operations. He returned to the top 100 in 2009 but retired the following year at 29.
   "He's helped me in a number of aspects," Donaldson said. "He's been a great influence on my serve. That's the real reason I went to him at first. My serve was a huge liability. Even though I didn't showcase it (Wednesday) as well as I would have liked, it has really become a strength in my game. Before, I never had confidence in it. Now, even when I don't have good days like (Wednesday), I still have confidence that I'm going to go up to the line and hit a really good first serve.
   "He's also helped me with my forehand, my backhand, my net game, my mental game, my defense, everything. He's been a huge influence on me on the court and also off the court. He was a 17-year-old, too, coming up and playing on the tour. Also, he's just a really, really nice person. I'm lucky that I have him around."
   Training with Federer in Dubai reinforced Dent's instructions about court positioning, opening up the court, accuracy on groundstrokes and serves, and defense.
   "I hadn't been working with him that long," Donaldson noted. "Not that I didn't believe him or have confidence in what he was saying, but I was still unsure. Look, I'm a pretty stubborn person. If someone tells me something, I don't just blindly accept it. I really need to understand it and believe it if I'm going to implement it into my game. I was a little hesitant about what he was saying. I didn't have full faith in it.
   "When I saw that Federer was doing the same things that I was trying to work on -- obviously he was doing it at a much higher level -- it gave me a lot of confidence in Taylor. I said, 'Taylor's right. He's telling me the truth. He's telling me what I need to hear.' "
   Donaldson began playing at 4 years old at the Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln, a suburb of Providence in the smallest state in area in the United States. The club has four hardcourts but, despite the snowy winters, none indoors.
   "My mom took my sister and me to the pool every single day," said Donaldson, whose father owned a construction company. "One day, I just wandered over to the tennis courts, picked up a racket and started playing. I played for five hours a day for a week in a row. My mom was like, 'Well, Jared, where do you go? I don't see you.' 'I go and play tennis.' 'Oh, really? For that long?'
   "My parents saw that I took an interest in tennis, and they started (paying for) private lessons. One thing led to another, and here I am."
   On the ATP World Tour web site, Donaldson says he'd be a poker player if he weren't a touring pro in tennis.
   "I really like playing poker, and I've studied the game pretty in-depth," he said.
   Donaldson attributes his interest to the "Moneymaker Effect."
   "When I was 6, I was watching ESPN, and I saw Moneymaker win the main event," Donaldson said. "I was like, 'Poker looks fun,' so I started playing."
   Will Donaldson reach tennis stardom? He's betting on it. 

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