These are heady days for devoted followers of American tennis. A cluster of young players are making their presence known on the international stage, gaining ground on their more experienced adversaries, advancing their reputations, making the landscape of the game in the United States livelier than it has been in a long time. One young man who stands proudly among that contingent of competitors from his country is well spoken, deeply ambitious and entirely realistic about the challenge ahead. He hails from Rhode Island, currently resides in California, stands 6'2" tall, and, at the age of 20, has climbed to a career high at No. 73 in the world. His name is Jared Donaldson, and this fellow seems certain to attain some significant honors in the future.
I spoke by telephone with Donaldson last week, and he came across with passion and intelligence about his quest to establish himself as a front line player. Donaldson impressed me immensely with his maturity and self awareness. We talked on a wide range of topics, starting with his current status at No. 5 in the Emirates ATP Race to Milan. Only Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev are ahead of Donaldson in that race reserved for players who are 21 and under. He is delighted about the situation.
"A lot of young guys want to play in the Milan tournament," he says. "It is a really good opportunity for everybody to play each other and to see everyone's strengths and weaknesses. It will be a good time to take advantage of what other guys do really well and implement that to your own game. This is the first year for that tournament and only eight players get in so it is very exciting. I would imagine it will be a pretty close race based on the points so far. I really think it will come down to the wire. It is going to be fascinating to see how it all shakes out."
A primary reason why Donaldson finds himself stationed among the top 75 in the world and in the top five in the Race to Milan is because he made it to the round of 16 in Key Biscayne at the recent Miami Open. How does he assess the progress he made on the hard courts in Florida that took him from No. 95 in the world to his new location?
"That was exciting last week in Key Biscayne where I came from qualies. I had lost in the qualies at Indian Wells and the next week I played a Challenger in Irving, Texas. I had two really good victories there, beating Andrey Kuznetsov and Frances Tiafoe and playing a close match against Aljaz Bedene. I got some confidence doing all that. Getting a couple of high level matches in is always important. Bringing that to Miami, my attitude was more aggressive. For my game style it is really important for me to be aggressive with my racket speed, my feet, my personality, everything. The trick is to not get carried away so far in that direction. You have got to control your emotions while still being very focussed and aggressive, and I think I did that in Key Biscayne."
His Florida run to the round of 16 in the main draw was a remarkable journey. Donaldson upended countryman Stefan Kozlov in the qualifying competition and then toppled Great Britain's Kyle Edmund and the left-hander Mischa Zverev. He was due to take on Milos Raonic but the burly Canadian had to default with a lingering leg injury. Donaldson was beaten soundly by Jack Sock, but that setback could not obscure all that he had accomplished.
As Donaldson recollects, "I had lost to Stefan [Kozlov] in Acapulco and he is a tricky player who gets a lot of balls back. He has really great feel and great hands and he moves the ball around very nicely, but I was able to win the big points in Florida in a really close match. Once you are in the main draw, anything can happen. I played Edmund and it was a little disappointing when I got behind 6-2, 5-3. It looked like I was going to be out of there kind of quick. But he played a lackluster game on his serve and I was able to break him. I got down 0-40 [triple match point]in the next game but I guess I relaxed. You are not swinging for the fences but you play loose. I hit a good drop shot and then two big serves. We battled at deuce for a couple of go arounds and then I was able to hold to make it 5-5. I started to play with confidence. We had a tie-break that was just high quality tennis from both of us and fortunately I was able to hit a couple of extra shots to win that and the momentum carried over into the third set which went well for me."
Against Zverev, Donaldson sparkled. As Donaldson says, "Mischa is a tricky opponent, a serve-and-volleyer who is pretty solid from the baseline. I returned fabulous in that match and really put a lot of balls in play and served very well also. I got a lot of balls down at his feet which can be tough for anybody coming to the net and having to hit volleys from below the net. I played a great match. I feel if I play my style of tennis at a good level I can give myself opportunities to win matches against guys at the top of the game. It is winning those matches on a consistent basis that I am trying to improve upon."
Taking on Sock in the round of 16, Donaldson was confronting the top ranked American in men's tennis. He lost that contest by the surprising scores of 6-2, 6-1. Seasoned observers thought it would be a closer encounter. What does Donaldson believe was the explanation for the one-sided score?
"Jack is a great player," he says. "I didn't serve exceptionally well and my first serve percentage was low, so I gave him too many opportunities on my second serve. Jack is so good from the back of the court that it is tough to win enough points to battle back and make it a tight match. The scoreline was disappointing but I also feel I learned a lot. I saw things from Jack I had not seen before. The way he controls the court with his forehand is at a really high level. He also mixed up his serve well with a lot of spin that jumps up. His second serve is really good, too. He hits second serves at 90 to 100 MPH with a lot of kick. My second serve just isn't quite at that level yet."
Be that as it may, Donaldson's game seems to stack up well against a lot of accomplished players. At the 2016 U.S. Open, he cut down both No. 12 seed David Goffin and the Serbian Viktor Troicki. Those fine wins carried him into the third round of a major for the first time.
"I am not going to lie,"he recalls. "It was an awesome experience and it makes me want to do even better at a Slam. I had a lot of confidence coming into the U.S. Open because I had won quite a few matches in the Masters 1000 tournaments prior to the tournament. I got to the round of 16 in Toronto and came through qualifying and won a round in Cincinnati before I lost to Wawrinka in three sets. I knew that these players were great but I felt I could compete with them and maybe beat them."
Speaking of his triumph over Goffin—a seasoned competitor who is awfully difficult to beat because he is such a warrior and a wily veteran—Donaldson asserts, "The key was I had a really good serving day and a very good returning day as well. My good returning put a lot of pressure on his serve. I think he had 16 double faults so obviously that helped me, but I think it was a product of me being aggressive on second serve returns and really putting him in uncomfortable positions off those returns. Tennis is really won through offense and by the player who dictates the points. Consistent aggression is what wins matches and you have to be aggressive against the higher ranked guys. I took the ball early against Goffin and did a lot of things really well."
Having said that, Donaldson realizes how hard fought it was and what it took for him to move past Goffin, who can be an implacable competitor. "The match was really close [4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-0].The fourth set scoreline looks easy but the first three sets were really tough. I lost the first set and I was down a break in the second set before winning it. In the third set I was up a break and then he broke me before I was able to break for the set. We had a lot of long rallies and a lot of deuce games. The Troicki match [7-5, 6-3, 6-3] was also really close. The margins in tennis are so small so you have got to make sure you are ready a hundred percent of the time. You never know when the moment will come when your opponent has a letdown."
Donaldson was beaten in the third round of the Open by No. 21 seed Ivo Karlovic. But the fact that he qualified and garnered two main draw victories was a testament to his strength and tenacity. Donaldson had hoped for a wildcard into the Open but his request was denied. He took the news with equanimity, realizing that a wildcard was not something he had earned.
"At the time, I was disappointed," he reflects. "I thought I was playing well at the time but I also realized I was not ranked high enough to be in the main draw. If I really deserved to be in the main draw I would either qualify or get my ranking better so I could get into the main draw at these tournaments. It is just one of those things where I would have to get my ranking higher or qualify for the tournament, which I did at the Open. So I was disappointed but I realized I should not have expected anything. The people deciding on the wildcards can give it to whoever they want. I had received wildcards the previous two years at the Open. Honestly, it is better to come through the qualifying anyway where you get the points."
After the Open, Donaldson fell into a slump as he competed in ATP World Tour events held in Japan and China, losing three consecutive matches in that stretch. But he kept in all in perspective. As he says, "The easy answer was that my game wasn't good enough. I really wanted to keep playing well after the Open and I wanted to do that in another country because I remember three or four years ago I was out in Dubai training with Federer and he told me it is easier to play well in your own country when you have fans cheering for you and you feel comfortable and speak the language. He said it is a lot tougher to to play in another country that you are unfamiliar with. He used Asia as an example. When I did go to Asia for those tournaments I wasn't winning matches. Players are going to figure out ways to beat you. They are not going to roll over for you."
Elaborating on his experience of training with Federer, Donaldson says, "I was 16 or just turning 17 and the USTA contacted me about the opportunity of training with Federer in Dubai. It was really cool. When I started playing tennis he was winning everything so it was an awesome experience. We were doing some drills, trying to take the ball early and open up the court and he did that so well and it made me even more motivated to work on things like that. What stayed with me over time more than any one thing he told me was visualizing those drills."
In any event, Donaldson headed into 2017 perhaps not at the top of his mental game after a hard autumn campaign toward the end of last year. At the Australian Open he took a two sets to love lead over Silva but eventually bowed out in five arduous sets. Donaldson does not believe it was a disintegration of his own game that cost him that contest but an elevation in Silva's play that changed the course of the battle.
"I don't feel I played all that bad," he says. "I won the first two sets and then he started playing better, which brought my level down a bit. The difference between winning and losing is sometimes really small. I was playing decent and giving myself opportunities but he played better. Just being ahead two sets to love doesn't mean you have the match in the bag. You have to give him credit and learn from it."
Looking at the learning process in a larger context, Donaldson spent some of his formative years as a player in Argentina practicing on red clay. It was a crucial grooming ground for the American and a time for him to more fully develop patience.
"It's interesting that you brought up the word patience," he points out. "That is kind of why I went down there. I am from Rhode Island originally and I trained indoors on fast hard courts so obviously I hit a flatter ball and didn't move all that great. Going down there, I had two things I wanted to improve: hitting the ball with more spin and improving my movement. On red clay you get longer points so it couldn't have been better for my game. I needed to improve so much and I did. That is what kind of shaped my game. I was there from 2011 to 2013 when I was 14 to 16-and-a-half years old."
How does he feel now about the quality of his clay court game? "I feel clay suits my game really well. I am very comfortable on it and am playing pretty much a full clay court schedule. I am excited to play the ATP World Tour events on clay this year because I feel I can do some damage on it."
As Donaldson pursues his objectives both this year and beyond, he will be surrounded by other promising Americans like Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Tommy Mmoh, Noah Rubin, Reilly Opelka and others. How supportive are they of each other?
"I never wish ill will of any player," he says. "So I am not wishing the best for Americans and ill will for players from other countries. It is difficult to be really good friends with people you are competing against. It is a weird setup because your colleagues are also your competitors, which isn't the case in other industries. I know all the young guys and I am friendly with all of them and I hope they will all do amazing things. But there are only a finite number of spots in the top ten and top fifty and so forth. Obviously you root for players from your own country but I want every player to succeed. It is a tricky situation. For instance, I am friendly with Frances [Tiafoe] but the other week I played him and I want to beat Frances just as badly as he wants to beat me. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that we are human beings. There is a certain level of respect you have got to show everybody."
I wanted to hear more from from Donaldson about Tiafoe. Watching Tiafoe in a variety of settings against different opponents, it has been strikingly apparent to me that he is a young man of universal appeal. He comes across as uncommonly decent. When I brought this up to Donaldson, he said, "You know what? Everybody has certain personalities and Frances is really lucky that he is blessed with a personality that attracts everybody. I don't think there is one person that doesn't like Frances."
The conversation turns to the subject of coaching. Donaldson has been the beneficiary of excellent advise in that area through the years. At one time he had the two Dents—Phil and Taylor—as his coaches.These days the people in his corner are Jan Michael Gambill and Mardy Fish. He has gleaned a great deal from all of these enormously capable individuals and he knows that full well.
"I am really lucky in that regard," he explains. "I have worked with a lot of really smart tennis minds. They all have pretty similar philosophies on how the game works. With Taylor and Phil, I learned a lot. They were really big about taking the ball early and playing aggressive tennis. Taylor was a serve-and-volleyer but he wasn't preaching to me about coming to the net all the time. He was really big on me having big weapons in my game because he felt on tour that was what held him back. He felt he really got hurt by guys who had big weapons off the ground. So he tried to instill that in my game: first strike tennis. Because I worked with Taylor and Phil for three years that is kind of where my game is modeled."
He pauses briefly, then continues, "I am working right now with Mardy Fish and Jan Michael Gambill and they see the game in a similar way. I am working on shot selection with them. I am working on my movement and on playing the right kind of aggressive tennis, making sure I don't miss without a reason. The interesting thing is that everything that I have heard from all these coaches is nothing I have not heard from the others. It is just that at certain points of my career I have to value one thing over the other. I am blessed and lucky to have had so many people around me who give me the best advise they can and always want the best for me."
The arrangement with Gambill and Fish is ideal for Donaldson. As he elaborates, "I work with Jan Michael privately and with Mardy through the USTA. Me and Taylor Fritz split Mardy. Mardy helps me out when I am here in California during weeks when I am training. He is also scheduled to travel to I believe eight tournaments a year. Jan Michael and Mardy work together closely and talk almost daily. It is not like they have different views of my game."
The fact remains, of course, that Donaldson't temperament and on court persona are of his own making, and reflect his own inner view of himself. Longtime observes allude to his deep intensity as a trademark. Does he see that as a strength?
"I definitely think that my intensity and work ethic are things that help me to get better. Inherently all tennis players have that because you need to in an aggressive sport. But I need to guard against going too far in that direction. I mean going over the cliff so to speak, letting your emotions take over. You need balance so I trey to give it 110% on the court and whatever happens happens."
Friends of mine who regularly track the players and follow everyone from a Donaldson to a Federer speak very highly of Donaldson's generosity toward fans. He consistently seems willing to extend himself to those who ask for small favors when they see him at tournaments. Donaldson clarifies, "I try to give everybody an autograph or pose for a picture because they are obviously supporting the game. These are just little things that take 20 or 30 seconds to do and it means a lot to them if I take the time to sign an autograph or have my picture taken with them. I am in this profession so I want to see it succeed. I don't want to say it is part of the job requirement to do these things because it is not, but I think it is something that goes with the territory. I want to make sure people say, 'Oh Jared seems like a really good person. Maybe he goes crazy on the court but you have to separate what is on the court from what is off.' I really want people to understand that about me."
The public will also come to understand that Donaldson sets lofty goals, but not unreasonably, and never blindly. He is a young player with large aspirations but realistic aims and extraordinary drive. As he says, "At home my Mom always had these magnetic things stuck to our refrigerator and I remember one was 'You only hit what you aim at.' So a Slam is the end goal for me. There are other arbitrary goals like finishing in the top 50 or the top 30; honestly I want to finish the year in the top ten. But I don't like really putting ranking goals out there because in a way you are not in control of that. At the end of the day I can go out and play a great match and lose and play an awful match and win. What you can control is improvement on and off the court. I can improve my serve. My first and second serves can get better. My first serve can be more consistent and my second serve can get bigger and heavier. My movement and strength can improve as can my overall game. If I can do that my ranking will improve enough and get to a good enough level so maybe one day I can win a Slam."