Jared Donaldson. Daniel Cox. To the average tennis fan, these two names have absolutely no significance whatsoever. In fact, unless you’re a consistent follower of the challenger tour, odds are you’ve never heard of them. They faced off in the round of 16 at the Binghamton challenger wednesday night, and there were, undoubtably, very few watching. Binghamton, a short drive from Ithaca College(I may or may not attend this great institution), is far from a tennis hotbed. Perhaps the most notable/recent sporting occurrence in the area was the Binghamton Mets(New York Mets AA Affiliate) appearing on ESPN’s “Not Top 10.” You get the picture. What unfolded on the sparsely attended center court was nothing short of fascinating.
These two unheralded(and that’s putting it kindly) tennis players are very much the opposite of one another. Cox, a 23 year old from England, is generously measured by the ATP at 5’7, and had been battling predominately on the futures circuit for the last five or so years. He’s won 12 titles at professional tennis’ lowest tier, and because of that, his ranking has improved steadily to the low 200′s. He recently played in the biggest match of his career at Wimbledon, where he took a set off of world no. 37 Jeremy Chardy, before falling in 4 tight sets. Because his ranking has improved, he can now play challengers on a regular basis, and wednesday he was looking to reach his third challenger quarterfinal of 2014.
Jared Donaldson, in contrast, is a 17 year old American, who is already 6’2, and still growing. Donaldson, who comes from a wealthy family, is one of a handful of young American juniors to have been touted at a future star. In February of 2013, he contemplated quitting tennis. After consulting with a sports psychologist, he decided against it. Donaldson was the runner up at the 2013 Kalamazoo nationals, and received a wildcard(speaking of wildcards….heh, read this) into the qualifying draw at the US Open, where he won two matches before falling in the third and final round. Obviously this created a lot of excitement, and rightfully so. The recent struggles that American male tennis players are having is something we hear just about every week, so I won’t babble on about that. Donaldson earned 16 ranking points in his first grand slam appearance, and with that came the opportunity to test the waters at the professional level. Over the last 10 months Jared has performed very well, and coming into wednesday’s encounter, he was on a 16 match winning streak, winning two futures titles and seeing his ranking reach a career high no. 343. He’s the number three ranked 17 year old, behind only Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric.
As I tuned into the stream, with the great Mike Cation on the call, I was vaguely interested. I’m on vacation at the beach, but figured I should watch Donaldson’s match and see how he’s progressed. Yes, I am a tennis nerd.
Cation was also looking forward to seeing how both would perform.
“I was thinking it was going to be one of those matches where we see quite a few 10-15 stroke rallies. And frankly, I thought Cox was going to have the better end of it because I wasn’t sure if Donaldson could stay in the points long enough,” Cation said.
Early proceedings were dominated by the young American, who quickly jumped out to a 4-1 lead. A plus forehand and a vastly improved backhand were on a full display, with Donaldson hitting winners left and right. There wasn’t really much Cox could do, as Donaldson was dictating the vast majority of points. The two shots that really stood out for Jared were his powerful inside-out forehand, and a flat yet precise backhand down the line. He was hardly pushed on serve, and closed out the first set 6-2.
Cox is pretty much the definition of a grinder, or as he says, a “grafter”. He fights for every ball and tries to extend rallies. The longer it goes, the better for the Brit. Things were not going well for a set and a half, but slowly he was starting to get his foot in the door. At about this point the real drama of the match started to unfold. Donaldson was not happy with more than a few line calls, a fairly normal thing for a 17 year old tennis player. If you watch a junior or college tennis match you will see a lot of complaining and badgering between opponents, but it’s not something you see very often at the pro level, unless your last name is Fognini.
“At the beginning of the second set you could tell Donaldson was getting loose, and he was questioning every call. It did remind me of a juniors match,” Cation said. “You just don’t see that at this level very often. Dan Cox was frustrated because he didn’t have many openings to break and at a certain point he just said ‘stop questioning every call’.”
I watching on a my laptop, and a many of the calls did appear close, but it did seem like every time a ball was close to the line Donaldson was talking to the chair umpire.
For the next few games, the extra-curricular stuff remained relatively quiet, as Donaldson appeared to get Cox’s message. Jared had a few opportunities to break serve late in the second set, but could not convert. At 4-all, he went off the rails. The forehand that had been so effective suddenly couldn’t find the court. Cox broke and served out the set fairly easily. The rallies were starting to get longer, and Cox was now fully into the match, both physically and emotionally. He was the one who was pumping himself up.
The Brit broke to 2-1 in the third set, and then more drama ensued. As Cox served to consolidate the break, he started looking up and gesturing behind the court to Jared’s dad, Courtney Donaldson. Courtney had been clapping after his son was winning points, and that is also very normal. But Cox took exception, and yelled to the senior Donaldson that he shouldn’t be clapping after unforced errors. The one-sided banter ensued for the rest of that game, with Cox the only one engaging.
“I was not expecting anything like that. I would describe Dan as scrappy, but I’ve never seen him verbally engage in that manner during a match. It got ugly,” said Cation, who prefaced his comments by saying he thought that Courtney was not in the wrong.
I spoke to Courtney Donaldson after the match, and he described his perspective on the situation.
“I clapped for a point Jared won, and to be honest I don’t remember a mis-hit or a net chord in the point and I clapped and to be honest so did most of the other people. It was a long point and I was happy to see Jared win the point and he took offense. But I left it at that. As much as he was spouting off I just looked straight ahead and said nothing. I didn’t want to interject into the match. He was upset and in my opinion was for a lack of a better term un-professional but it is what is is he was in the middle of an intense match and lost his composure,” Donaldson said.
Who was right and who was wrong is really up to you. Brad Gilbert saw Cox on a regular basis from 2006-2008 while at the Lawn Tennis Association(LTA), and described Cox as somebody who was always “a feisty little guy on the court.”
To be honest, after Cox battled through a long service game to hold 3-1, I thought Donaldson would fold. He seemed to be on the edge, and after failing to break back he could have let it all go. But he fought hard, and made the rest of the match very exciting. He had chances to break in two more of Cox’s service games, but just couldn’t find a way to finish at the biggest moments. Cox closed the match out 6-4 in the third, and was very excited about his performance, giving a couple extended fist pumps. The post-match handshake was brief, but clean.
Tennis is a sport that can be intriguing at every level, from recreational to professional, and this match was a great example of that. A look at the scoreline and one would presume that it was just another tennis match, but it wasn’t. Every single point from about the second set on was tense, competitive, and fun. There was drama, high quality tennis, and a little comedy as well. What more could a fan ask for?
For Donaldson, his potential is overwhelming. He has all the tools to be a top player, and it might not be long before we see him at the big leagues. But we have to realize that he is a 17 year old, and he still has a lot of time to grow.
“The whole time I was saying to myself, ‘this is just part of the mental maturity that will certainly come for (Jared)’,” Cation added.
“Jared loves to compete, improve and play tennis. He enjoys the success but doesn’t let it affect his development,” father Courtney said.
As for Cox, he’s on to the quarterfinals, where a very winnable match against Darian King awaits. I hope the few of you who saw the match enjoyed it as much as I did