Last year at this time, Mackenzie McDonald wasn't playing tennis. Dealing with a diagnosis of Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, a bleeding disease, McDonald was out of competition for eight months, and missing the Easter Bowl was especially difficult for the 2009 Boys 14s champion.
"It was brutal," said McDonald, who turns 17 on Monday. "I really wanted to be here. I almost considered coming just to hang out, I wanted to be here so bad. I couldn't, but it just made me more hungry for a title."
The third-seeded McDonald satisfied that craving on a picture perfect Sunday morning at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort, defeating No. 4 seed Alexios Halebian 6-4, 6-1 to take the boys title at the Grade B1 ITF tournament.
McDonald won the first six points of the championship match, but Halebian upped the ante, playing outstanding tennis to take a 4-1, two-break lead.
Serving with that lead, Halebian had points to take a 5-1 lead, but McDonald broke, the first of five straight games he would win to take the set.
"I got off to a good start, looking good and then I didn't make it 5-1," said Halebian, a native of Glendale, California who trains at the USTA's Boca Raton center. "He started playing better and better. My chance to win the match was maybe get first set, since I started out so hot."
Halebian suffered the first break of the second set serving at 1-2, with McDonald winning the bulk of the long rallies with exceptional forehands and decisive volleys. Under the barrage of deep and penetrating shots, Halebian began to contribute unforced errors and when he was broken again, little hope remained.
"He came out hot, but after that I tried to slow it down a little bit," McDonald said. "I just tried to stick to my game plan. Down 4-1 you've got to dig yourself out of that hole, but after that, you win a few points, you win a game, you break him, you get confident and when you get up 5-4 you get a little looser. Once you get the first set, you're pretty loose and you're just playing easy," McDonald said of his late surge.
Serving at 5-1 in the second set, took a 40-0 lead, but needed his third match point to end it, with a strong forehand forcing an error from Halebian.
Although his celebration was muted, McDonald was satisfied with his win, three years after he claimed the 14s title on the same Rancho Las Palmas court, when he was also the No. 3 seed.
"I'm happy to be back out here, I really am," said the Piedmont, Calif. resident. "It's good to be battling and back on the courts. And to be doing so well, that's good."
McDonald's friend JC Aragone is now going through a similar medical setback, and McDonald has been doing all he can to set an example for him.
"We saw him last week and I've been texting him almost daily and I think I'm helping him a little bit, because I went through the same thing," said McDonald. "You just appreciate it more to be out there and to be playing tennis, to be fortunate enough to do all this."
Comebacks, whether in rehabilitation or on a tennis court are one and the same for McDonald.
"I'm definitely mentally stronger from it," said McDonald. "JC on his deathbed twice, he didn't give up, he got back. Same thing with me, I almost had it, but I didn't give up. And in these matches, you're down and you don't give up. In the Australian Open,[I was] down 6-0, 4-0 30-0 [in the 2012 junior quarterfinals], just don't give up and great things can happen."
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