Wednesday, August 9, 2017

NorCal's McDonald tops ex-champ Millman in Aptos

   APTOS, Calif. -- It seemed like a natural in the Nordic Naturals Challenger.
   Former champion John Millman was scheduled to play Northern Californian Mackenzie McDonald on Tuesday in the first round of the $100,000 tournament at the Seascape Sports Club near the Pacific Ocean.
   Perfect for the featured evening match on Center Court, right?
   Instead, seventh-seeded Casper Ruud, 18, of Norway and Quentin Halys, 20, of France received top billing in their tournament debuts, and Millman and McDonald played on an outside court at 4:30 p.m.
   "It was a tournament sponsor request," explained Keith Crossland, the on-site USTA supervisor.
   Guess where Nordic Naturals, a worldwide supplier of fish oils, was founded in 1995. Bingo ... Norway. Ruud, the first Norwegian to be ranked No. 1 in the juniors and the son of former top-40 pro Christian Ruud, is pictured on a Nordic Naturals banner on Center Court.
   Not only was McDonald relegated to an outside court, Millman had a bigger cheering section.
   No matter. McDonald, who grew up a 90-minute drive north of Aptos in Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area, outlasted Millman 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-0 in a hard-hitting baseline battle lasting 2 hours, 24 minutes.
   "This is my home, or near my home," said McDonald, a 22-year-old wild card. "Actually, it didn't really feel like it because it felt like the crowd was a lot in his favor, which was really odd to me. I don't know why that was, but it's good to be home. I used to play here all the time in the juniors."
   Millman, meanwhile, ran out of energy in the third set.
   "I came onto the court struggling," admitted the 28-year-old Australian, who reached the final of last week's $75,000 Lexington (Ky.) Challenger, losing to 19-year-old American Michael Mmoh 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3. "I spent all day traveling yesterday, and with the time difference and everything, it was tough. I probably had to win it in straight sets. I tried my hardest.
   "Mackie did well to get through -- all credit to him. I felt like I was maybe a little bit unlucky with -- I've just gone over some footage -- and I thought that maybe ... yeah, it was a bit unfortunate."
   Millman, a consummate professional, was trying to be diplomatic about two line calls on one critical point in the second set that went against him. With McDonald facing break point at 4-4, he hit two shots that appeared to be long but were called in. Millman eventually netted a backhand to end the longest rally of the match. Normally composed and businesslike, he yelled in frustration.
   "That's a killer when you're feeling pretty flat," Millman conceded. "Sometimes it goes your way, which is lucky, and sometimes you're unlucky. In this case, I was unlucky, but don't take anything away from my opponent. He fought hard and played better tennis than me at the end, for sure. It's frustrating, though."  
   Millman squandered another break point in the game, and McDonald held serve for 5-4. McDonald then broke for the set when Millman netted a forehand after another long rally.
   The Aptos tournament, the oldest men's Challenger in the United States, is celebrating its 30th year. Two years ago, Millman became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to win the title. Last year, he reached the third round at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and climbed to a career-high No. 60.
   Millman was unseeded this year in Aptos at No. 152 after missing the first 4 1/2 months of the season because of surgery for a torn groin tendon.
   "The body is probably not what it used to be (before the surgery)," lamented Millman, a right-hander who also has had two operations, one major and one minor, on his right shoulder. "I'm still trying to get back that conditioning. It's tough doing all that traveling.
   "It's kind of uncharted waters for me to play back-to-back tournaments after coming back from the surgery and flying five hours. It's tough on the body. Some people think that you're like a robot or it's like a video game and you can just keep going, but it's tough."
   Especially against a player like McDonald who can match Millman's consistency.
   "Mackie's going to make you work for it, for sure," said Millman, a rock-solid 6 feet (1.83 meters) and 175 pounds (79 kilograms). "He's going to make you earn your win. I still was probably one point away from winning it in the second set, to be honest with you. I thought the external conditions (line calls) were tough."
    Given Millman's long week in Lexington, McDonald thought he might be able wear him down in their first meeting.
   "Yeah, but that guy's also an animal, and he's been doing this for a while," McDonald said. "John's known for not really breaking down, so I knew I had to put up a fight, and I did.
   "He seemed totally fine, totally fresh, to be honest. Maybe at the end (he got tired), but I really took it to him at the end as well. I really earned those last three games."
   McDonald, only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 145 pounds (66 kilograms), displayed good pop on his serve.
  "Thanks for saying that," McDonald, the doubles runner-up in Aptos last year with former Cal star Ben McLachlan, gushed to a reporter. "I haven't heard that yet. If that's happening, that's good. That's something I need to keep improving on, that pop. I feel like I held (serve) a lot today. I think I just got broken once."
   McDonald was correct. Millman broke for 4-4 in the first set when McDonald committed four double faults. He had only one other double fault in the match to go with four aces.
   When asked what the problem was on the four double faults, McDonald retorted: "I have no idea. If I knew, I'd tell you. They were all going long, though."
   McDonald reached the quarterfinals of the $100,000 Granby Challenger near Montreal two weeks ago. He trained last week in the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., during the Citi Open on the ATP World Tour.
   "It was unfortunate I couldn't get in there because of the time of my match in Granby," McDonald said, "but I put in a couple good days of work there, then I came here and put some more days of work in. It can see it pays off."
   Just over one year after turning pro, McDonald is on the verge of cracking the top 200 for the first time at No. 207. As a UCLA junior in May 2016, he became the first man to sweep the NCAA singles and doubles titles since Mathias Boeker of Georgia in 2001.
   U.S. veteran Denis Kudla, who reached a career-high No. 53 that month, guaranteed this past February that McDonald eventually would break into the top 100.
    By the way, Halys topped Ruud 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in Tuesday's featured evening match. Only three seeds remain after the first round: No. 3 Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland and No. 5 Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan in the bottom half and No. 6 Tennys Sandgren of Gallatin, Tenn., in the top half. Kukushkin reached the Aptos final in 2014, falling to former world No. 8 Marcos Baghdatis.
   An American is guaranteed to advance to the semifinals. In the top half of the draw today, Sandgren will play McDonald at about 3 p.m., and wild card Taylor Fritz will meet qualifier Austin Krajicek not before 6 p.m.
   Krajicek, a distant relative of 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, ousted top seed Malek Jaziri of Tunisia in the first round and was the runner-up to Millman two years ago in Aptos.
   Although McDonald still won't appear in the featured evening match, he will play on Center Court. So, as Bill Murray would say, he's got that going for him, which is nice.
   Here are the Aptos singles and doubles draws and Wednesday's schedule.

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