When the word Dubai is mentioned in front of Jared Donaldson, the young American tennis player ranked No.55 in the world gets immediately animated.
“I love Dubai,” he told Sport360 in Milan, where he is the fifth seed in an eight-player field at the Next Gen ATP Finals this week.
He has every reason to. The first and last time Donaldson was in the Emirates was because he received an invitation from Roger Federer to train with him for three weeks ahead of the 2014 season.
Donaldson had just turned 17 at the time and was ranked No730 in the world. He was not necessarily a standout junior (his highest ITF junior ranking was 115) but he had reached the final of the 2013 USTA Boys 18s National Championship a few months earlier, and was coached by former world No21 Taylor Dent.
“At the beginning I was very nervous, because I’ve watched Federer growing up, my entire tennis career basically. And he was always on TV because he was always winning right? And he was my favourite player, I always rooted for him. So I was really nervous because I wanted to give him a good practice and stuff,” recalls Donaldson of that preseason back in December 2013.
“But I remember the first day he came, and he was super relaxed and super jovial, it was actually something that I never really forget.
“The way Federer was relaxed, I wasn’t as nervous at practice with him. So I’ve always remembered that, that he was really friendly, super warm, it really allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm in practice.
“I felt I practiced better because he was so nice. And I don’t think he was fake, that’s just who he is, he’s a really great person and obviously that’s why he’s an amazing champion and a legend.”
Like his fellow ‘Big Four’ members, Federer makes it a habit to select a young up-and-coming player each season to have a solid training block with, and his list of previous practice partners includes the likes of Nick Kyrgios, who is currently considered one of the top talents in the world of tennis.
But while Kyrgios was a much talked-about teen who beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon shortly after his stint with Federer in Zurich, Donaldson’s steady but low-key progress meant that he never really was at the forefront of the up-and-coming generation of tennis stars – not until he had his breakthrough at the US Open last year, where he upset the then world No.14 David Goffin en route to the third round, as a qualifier.
That run saw him break into the top-100 for the first time and slowly the tennis world started to take notice of him. Still, he wasn’t making the waves made by other Next Gen players like Alexander Zverev or Borna Coric, who were taking down huge scalps, nor was he being singled out amongst his fellow Americans like Taylor Fritz or Frances Tiafoe.
Yet here we are at the end of the 2017 season and Donaldson is the youngest American in the top-70, is ranked higher than both Fritz and Tiafoe, and is the sixth-best 21-and-under player in the world.
Slow and steady has certainly done well for him.
He cracked the top-50 last month and can now expect to play a full ATP schedule next season.
Does he feel like he belongs when he shows up to the big tournaments and faces top players?
“For me, in my entire career, first you play them and then you lose, then you play at a higher level and you take a set off of them maybe but you still maybe lose. Then after that you maybe win a close one, then you start winning easier and easier as you progress through the certain levels,” he explains.
“Definitely I think there was a big transition for me, starting first from the Futures, and then the Challengers and then the ATP.
“I hovered between 100 and 150 for two years and then obviously I had a breakthrough at the US Open.
“So I think it was a lot of me learning about my game and what I did really well on the court and what I did not so well on the court and needed to improve on.
“But I think one of the great things that I’ve been able to do, is I was always – and I credit the people around me for keeping my mindset on the positive, which was always make sure you’re improving regardless of what the result is on the court and I think that’s what I credit my relative success to – which is always focusing on the goal of improvement rather than getting caught up so much in the result. Which I think the lines sometimes get blurred.”
It’s impressive to hear a 21-year-old lay out his thoughts so clearly and explain such a mature and level-headed approach to a viciously competitive sport. His thought process is very Johanna Konta-esque in its simplicity and effectiveness.
But that mindset should not be mistaken for lack of passion from Donaldson.
“I got into tennis not because I wanted to make a lot of money or because I wanted to be famous – I wanted to achieve something great, when I was a kid I always wanted to be a professional athlete,” he says.
“I loved basketball, that was the first sport I really loved, I played every sport, my parents got me involved in everything.
“But I think sometimes you don’t choose your path, your path kind of chooses you and I would say that’s the same for me because I loved sports, I gravitated towards sports.
“I would go and shoot hoops, we had a basketball hoop at our house and I would go and shoot hoops and my sister would draw chalk down the sidewalk, so that would be our thing, we spent time together that way.”
He played baseball but didn’t enjoy the practices too much because “there was a lot of waiting around” and he eventually shifted his focus to tennis.
“Tennis I thought was great because it was a one-on-one sport and I really liked the sense of the individuality, in not being so reliant on a team, I wanted to be the person where if I lost it was my fault and it if I won it was because of what I did on the court,” he added.
Unlike most American players who grow up playing through the USTA system, Donaldson went to Argentina when he was 14 to train there for two years.
If you’re wondering why his game is not about huge serves and bullet forehands like many of his fellow Americans, it’s because Donaldson, his father, along with his former coach Mario Llano realised that more variety in his shots would benefit him more in today’s game.
“I’m from the North-East, so originally I’m from Rhode Island so I was playing a lot indoor. So two glaring weaknesses were my movement, and the shape of my shot,” he explained.
“I played flatter because indoor it’s more advantageous to play flatter. So with those two things in mind we realised the best medicine for that to improve was to play on clay because those are the type of things that don’t work on clay. And what I need to incorporate in my game, better movement and more spin on my shots, gets exaggerated on clay because that’s what’s really beneficial on clay.”
So off he went to Argentina to train with Pablo Bianchi. Donaldson credits his time in South America for where he is today, and while he says it was an amazing experience, he wishes he would’ve soaked up the culture a bit more.
“I think in a way it prepared me for life on tour because I was away from friends and family and traveling, sent to travel,” he says. “But I guess culturally I could have taken advantage of it a little bit more. I’m not saying I didn’t do anything. I wish I learned the language, where I could speak Spanish fluently because I think that really could have helped me in life.
“But I didn’t really realise it at the time, I was young, I was a little obviously immature, I was only 14. But that’s one thing I regret, that I didn’t – I was thinking ‘I’m here for tennis and I need to work as hard as I can on tennis to be great’ and I didn’t think about other things.
“Which maybe, you know we sit here today and say ‘oh I could have done this and that’ and maybe I didn’t take advantage of certain things but for my tennis it was a great experience. So maybe if I wasn’t focused enough on tennis I might not be in my position now.”
Donaldson is one of the seven highest-ranked 21-and-under players competing in Milan this week, with the eighth player in the field being Gianluigi Quinzi, and Italian wildcard who won a tournament to qualify for the Next Gen ATP Finals.
The event is testing out many new rules the ATP is exploring, in efforts to make the sport more appealing to millennials.
Asked to weigh in on whether these new rules would attract the young people of his generation to tennis, Donaldson quickly points out that he is not your typical millennial.
“I still have cable TV. I miss the old Sports Center when you turn it on and you just saw the highlights. I loved that,” he says enthusiastically.
“Maybe I’m not the right person to ask. But for me I definitely think innovation is a great thing, I think maybe for certain sports it’s a little scary. And certainly as a player I can definitely relate to that feeling as well. However I think this is a great opportunity and I really credit the ATP and Chris (Kermode, ATP president) and the ATP in general because you’re broadcasting different results and different ideas and different ways to go about the same game.
“Because if you’re going to watch the tennis this tournament because there’s great players here, it’s still the same game, it’s just the rules and variations are slightly different.
“So it will affect the play slightly but I think it’s a good moment to kind of look to see how it will play out. And maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but I think it’s always a good idea to keep thinking and reinventing.
“Because obviously nothing’s perfect but you want to keep trying to get to a level where it’s really satisfying. From a millennial, for me I still watch all the sporting events, I’m not a cord cutter, I have cable TV, I’m not your typical millennial. I still take information the old way so to speak.
“I guess it’s kind of this enigma that still hasn’t been solved yet. It will. But yeah it’s a tough debate but I think events like this really help move forward that discovery.”
While his fellow 21-and-under players are battling it out at the Next Gen Finals in Milan, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is preparing to make his debut alongside the big guns at the Nitto ATP Finals in London next week, where he shares a group with Roger Federer, Marin Cilic and Jack Sock.
Zverev, along with Sock, and Grigor Dimitrov are all making their first appearance at the top-eight season finale, while Goffin played one match at the O2 in London last year as an alternate but has qualified directly for the first time this season.
Goffin and Dimitrov share a group with world No.1 Rafael Nadal, who is seeking a maiden ATP Finals trophy, and Austrian Dominic Thiem, who will be making a second showing at the event.
The 20-year-old Zverev has had a tremendous 2017 that saw him rise to his current career-high ranking of No.3 in the world. He claimed two Masters 1000 titles in Rome and Montreal, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final of the former, and Federer to win the latter.
Zverev had qualified as the top seed for the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan but opted out in favour of the elite action set to take place in London.
The young German made a special appearance in Milan on Tuesday though, where he played an exhibition with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Looking ahead to the ATP Finals, Zverev said: “I think playing in that event is kind of like winning a tournament itself already.
“It shows you’ve been playing at a top-10 level the whole year. Obviously that’s great for every player. I think it’s an honour for every player to play there. This is going to be my first time, hopefully not my last, but I’m going to try to prepare myself as best as I can and try to win many matches there.”
Zverev has won five titles this season, from six finals reached, and he is 6-5 win-loss against top-10 opposition in 2017.
When he triumphed in Rome last May, he became the first player born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 crown, and the youngest player to win a tournament at that level since Djokovic in 2007. The victory catapulted Zverev into the top-10 for the first time.
“I think Rome was an amazing tournament for me because it was also on clay,” reflected Zverev, who has won twice as many titles on hard courts than he has on the red dirt.
“On clay beating those kind of guys like Djokovic and other players is even tougher I think, for me it was a very tough match I think.
“So that means even more to me that it was on clay. But winning those Masters events was great, especially in one of them I beat Djokovic in the final and the other one I beat Federer in the final. So that’s something very special I think for everyone.”
There’s no doubt that 2017 has been a breakthrough season for Zverev, but the one glaring stat is his 6-4 win-loss at the Grand Slams this year, where he failed to make a debut quarter-final appearance at any of them.
He doesn’t have many regrets though over his performances at the majors this season.
“In Australia I lost to Nadal in five sets (in the third roud), in Wimbledon I lost to (Milos) Raonic in five sets (in the fourth round), so I didn’t feel like I played a lot of bad matches at the Grand Slams, I just lost to very good players,” he explains.
“The only bad match I felt like I played at a Grand Slam was at the US Open against (Borna) Coric (in the second round). That’s my personal opinion, I thought that as one of the worst matches I played all season but other than I think the opponents were maybe a little bit better than me on that day.”
So far in his young career, Zverev has stepped up on many big occasions and seems unfazed by the pressures that come with being amongst the sport’s elite. But the ATP Finals present a unique challenge for him, and he is well aware he’ll need to be firing from the get-go.
Asked if he was feeling any early butterflies ahead of London, Zverev said: ““I mean it’s Tuesday so it’s still a bit early. But it’s completely different.
“You play one of the best eight players in the world from the first match on. That’s something very special and you have to play your best tennis from the early rounds, which I think a lot of top players, maybe try to play themselves into tournaments, like I did in Washington and Montreal, actually I won both matches 7-6 in the third in the first rounds, and I got better the more I played.
“But this year I think it’s going to be an amazing experience for a lot of the first-timers this year and I’m looking forward to it.”
Nadal is in a race against time to recover from a knee problem that forced him to pull out of his quarter-final at the Paris Masters last week.
His doctor Angel Ruiz Cotorro told Cope radio station on Tuesday that they are doing everything they can to get the Spaniard ready for the Finals and that scans have shown that there was “nothing serious detected in the tendon” of his right knee.
Nadal has missed two of the last three ATP Finals through injury and has never won the event, while Federer is seeking a seventh trophy at the season finale.
The ATP Finals begin on Sunday with Federer’s group taking to the court at the O2, while Nadal’s group commence on Monday.
Before the start of the Next Gen ATP Finals that kicked off in Milan on Tuesday, ATP president and executive chairman Chris Kermode addressed the audience at the draw party on Sunday and made a bold statement.
“Men’s professional tennis is the greatest sports entertainment product in the world,” he proudly said.
That could be debatable but many tennis fans probably agree with him.
The Englishman then began to defend the reasoning behind the newly-introduced 21-and-under tournament, and the set of rules they are testing out in the process.
They are “innovations”, as the ATP are calling them, that have been met with lots of criticism before the event even started.
Those new rules include:
The list is not a short one.
The players who are undergoing this experiment are the top seven in the world rankings, aged 21 and under, plus Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi, who won a tournament to qualify for Milan.
It all came together for the first time on Tuesday at the Rho Fieramilano, where Daniil Medvedev became the first match winner in the history of the Next Gen ATP Finals, by defeating his fellow Russian Karen Khachanov 2-4, 4-3 (6), 4-3 (3), 4-2 in one hour and 50 minutes.
“The reason we are doing this is the traditional tennis viewership is my age and older,” said the 52-year-old Kermode ahead of the action.
“What I want to look at is the next generation of tennis fans who hopefully are the future of watching our sport. And how kids are going to consume sport for the next 10-15 years is very different to how we do now.
“We’re going to test-case a whole new way of playing tennis. This has caused my email inbox to overflow with quite a lot of abuse actually. ‘You’re the guy that’s going to ruin tennis, all the tradition of the game, you’re going to change the sport, it works, why are you messing with the sport?’
“The reason we are trying these things out, is exactly that. We are trying to do things for the future of the sport.”
We got to see how these new rules played out on Tuesday and most of the players sounded keen about seeing some of them, possibly, getting implemented on tour.
Medvedev believes the shot clock and on-court coaching would be good additions.
“I think it was talked a lot about in last years that there is the time violation rule gets stricter on the tour, so I guess the shot clock will be something I think, in my opinion, that will be first added to ATP Tour,” said the 21-year-old Medvedev. “Maybe even soon, I guess. I’m not sure. I’m not the one who makes the rules.”
The world No.65 used the headsets during his match to talk to his coach and he says it would be useful if he could enjoy that privilege year-round.
“It’s actually a little bit strange. I think tennis is maybe only sport to not have coaching, which I see, in my opinion, is not really, not fair, but is not right. I mean, you work with your coach all year long. So why cannot he tell you something during the game?
“So when I put the headphones on me, I didn’t have anything to say about myself. I just wanted to listen to him and what he says. He gave me some advices, and finally I won, so I guess he made a good job.”
It’s unclear if and when any of these rules would make their way to the actual tour but Kermode assures it won’t be imminent.
“So we’re going to try this stuff, if it works, we might implement it on the tour events in three, four, five years down the line. We won’t be making radical changes next year, don’t panic! But I’m really interested in everyone’s feedback,” said the ATP boss.
South Korean Chung Hyeon beat Canadian Denis Shapovalov 1-4, 4-3 (5), 4-3 (4), 4-1 before world No.3 Alexander Zverev – who qualified as the top seed for this event but opted out because he’s playing the ATP World Tour Finals next week – contested an exhibition against Greek alternate Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“This was something I wanted to give back to the fans a little bit and just have some fun,” said the 20-year-old Zverev, who had a breakthrough 2017, winning two Masters 1000 events and qualifying for the year-end top-eight finale in London for the first time.
“But when you try to play seriously and when you will be at a tournament playing semi-finals or finals, most of the rules will be tough to handle. I think the shot clock is a good thing. The Hawk-Eye calling all the lines, I like that, but a lot of the other things I’m not sure are going to happen.”
Zverev jokingly had an on-court coaching chat with his friend, doubles No.1 Marcelo Melo, who was in the stands during the exhibition.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) November 7, 2017
“It was fun to give him some tips, I don’t know if he got it or not but it was fun to be a coach for one day,” Melo told Sport360.
“I think it’s very nice to see that we’re trying different things to improve tennis. I really like the shot clock, I think we should put this on tour. But other things they need to see about the players how they feel it after finishing the tournament, the crowd, the people, and then if you can apply new things, that’s always good.
“We should do it somehow the coaching. I don’t know if this is the best way, could be or not, we need to see with the players as well, and the coaches, but I think the coach should be allowed in one way. I don’t know which one is the best one but in one way it should be allowed.”
There are no line judges at the Next Gen ATP Finals, with Hawk-Eye Live automatically calling all the shots. When a ball lands particularly close to a line, a “Close Call” replay is shown on the big screen.
A replay was mistakenly played after a Khachanov first serve fault which meant the Russian hit his second serve while the “Close Call” was being replayed.
Such kinks will surely be ironed out throughout the week.
A recorded voice calls the outs during the match, based on Hawk-Eye Live and Khachanov made an interesting observation regarding that.
“I think for now live Hawk-Eye is a good thing. Only thing is I would like to hear a different voice,” he said with a smile. “I think it’s better that all umpires record their voices and each match that he played, it’s an umpire that is on the chair. I think it would be better like this.”
The world No.45 feels playing to four games makes the set too short and doesn’t give a player a chance to break back if he lost serve. He suggests playing to five, with a tiebreak at 4-all would be better.
It’s worth noting that none of the first three matches of the day saw a player come back from a break down in the set to go on and win that set.
With so much experimentation going on this tournament, it might be hard for fans to take it seriously. But Khachanov assures the players themselves are all in. While there are no ranking points on the line, the winner in Milan can collect up to $390,000 – that is more than a third of what Khachanov earned all year in 2017.
“I think everybody plays serious here,” he insisted. “We are not playing for something, like, not big, you know. So, okay, we don’t have points but there is prize money, and still, it’s a very prestigious tournament that all of us, we qualified here, to be here and to play. So everybody plays serious.
“And even that we know each other close, we are friends outside, but in the match everybody plays full. So I think with motivation, there is nothing to say. It’s 100 per cent.”
Round robin action resumes on Wednesday with the final taking place on Saturday November 11.