Grit and Bear It: Notes From the Pro Tennis Hustle

The view of the US Open from on the grind, where Michael McClune remains—for now.
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Just because he wears shorts to work doesn't mean he isn't working.

Image via AustinTennis.

The 2012 US Open is now underway, but 22-year-old professional tennis player Michael McClune won’t be competing. Instead, he’ll be at home watching on television with the rest of us.

This wasn’t always the case. At the age of 18, McClune was the top ranked Junior and by virtue of winning the USTA Boys’ National 18s Tennis Championships in Kalamazoo, he was granted a wild-card into the 2007 US Open. Though he lost in the first round to Juan Ignacio Chela (who was then the No. 22 seed) 2-6, 1-6, 6-7(0), the future still looked bright for the hard-hitting young American. With lucrative contract offers from Wilson, Nike, and IMG, McClune declined a scholarship offer from UCLA and decided to turn pro.

A long five years later, McClune qualified for his first ATP event. Last week at the Winston-Salem Open, a 250-level ATP tournament held in North Carolina, McClune defeated Jeff Dadamo, Guillaume Rufin, and Jack Sock to earn his place in the main draw. McClune could be forgiven for seeing some of himself in Sock, a highly touted 19-year-old who, like McClune, was a No. 1 Junior and Kalamazoo Tennis Championships winner (in 2011). McClune called the win over Sock the biggest win of his career, but he wasn’t done there.

In the first round of the Winston-Salem Open, behind an unbreakable serve and an impressively powerful backhand, he beat No. 52 Alejandro Falla for the first ATP win—and the first top-100 win—of his career. In the second round, facing No. 36 Jurgen Melzer (who was a top-10 player only last year), McClune came back from a nerve-ridden first set to nearly clinch the upset, earning four match points before finally losing 2-6, 6-2, 6-7 (12).

Afterwards, clearly disappointed but still typically amiable, he sat down with me to discuss the week. He acknowledged that it had been the best week of his career, and the fact that he could play top players so closely clearly bolstered his confidence. “But still,” he said, [the loss to Melzer] “was a tough one. It was a tough one to lose. It hurts.”

When McClune first turned pro back in 2007, he never would have imagined that it would take five years to get his first ATP tour win, and that his top ranking would still be No. 267 in the world as late as 2010. “Definitely when you are No. 1 as a Junior, I think everyone goes through this where they think it's going to be a bit easier to make it. I definitely thought that by now I'd be, you know, maybe top 100 or something. After a couple of years on the tour I think reality hits you in the face.”

The reality is that the pro game was much harder to adjust to, both physically and mentally, than he expected. “Physically, it took me until I was 21 to actually put on some weight, not be a stick. That helps a lot because, I mean, grinding every day, I'm sore all the time and I just can't keep up with these guys. Also, mentally, I was pretty weak until, like, a year ago. I worked with a sports psychologist for a while. That helped me a lot, just getting over nerves, and just having a plan each day."

McClune has spent most of the past five years grinding away in the lower-level tennis events such as the Challengers and Futures with his ranking bouncing primarily between 300 and 500. "Futures is kind of rough,” he admitted. “You don't play in the greatest places. You play in, like, high schools with weeds coming out of the courts. Luckily I've played only two Futures this year; I've played mostly Challengers. The US definitely does a good job with their Challengers. Pretty nice facilities. You play at clubs and stuff. So, it's definitely a big step up from Futures. Not as much of a grind, they take care of you a lot more. But it's obviously not at this level [at the Winston-Salem Open], where you're getting free food, you're getting free transportation all the time, you're getting a free hotel room, you get this unbelievable facility. It's a big step."

The past five years have taken a big toll on McClune financially. He has won just over $130,000 in the past five years combined, and the lucrative contracts with Nike and IMG are long gone; he still wears Nike, thanks to the large amount of extra clothes he still has hanging around. Wilson is his only remaining sponsor, and it’s probably safe to say that it ‘s not an especially enviable contract. To make ends meet, he runs an events-planning website with his mom and sister and teaches tennis lessons a couple times a week when he’s home. “When I'm on the road I'm staying at Motel 6s with roommates,” he says. “You just try and get by, you know? A lot of guys are in the same position, just trying to break even. I'm obviously not playing for the money right now,” he said with a laugh. “I still enjoy it.”

The highlight of McClune’s professional tennis career so far actually took place on the practice courts back in 2008. “I hit with (Federer) for my birthday present when I was eighteen at the U.S. Open…then maybe six months later he invited me to Dubai.” Even moments after his tough loss to Melzer, McClune could not wipe the smile off of his face when talking about his experience. “It was unbelievable. He's just the most down-to-earth guy. You know, you go out there for your first hit and you can't even breathe you're so nervous, you're afraid you're just going to whiff the ball. But (Federer) makes it where you relax so quickly because he just talks to you, he's just a cool, normal guy. It was the best two weeks of my life.”

“I trained with him every day and he helped me get into the Dubai Open.” (McClune received a wild-card into the Dubai Open Qualification Rounds in 2008, where he lost his first match.) “[Federer] was just coming back from when he had mono. We'd mix it in, maybe two hits a day and we'd do fitness also. He's coming back from mono, he hasn't done anything for three weeks, and the guy is absolutely killing himself on court. It's 100 degrees outside in Dubai and the guy is just killing himself. I mean he's broken every record in the world and he's still just working unbelievably hard.”

McClune thinks that Federer has another few Slams left in him, and will spend this week watching the Swiss No. 1 and others at the US Open while he’s busy training in California. The American has an aggressive, strike-first game that’s stylistically similar to James Blake, and can draw inspiration from the fact that by today’s tennis standards he’s still young. Though 22 used to be an age where players were supposed to have already reached their peak, it’s more common in these days of more physical tennis to see ATP players reach their maximum potential in their late twenties.

The breakthrough of Brian Baker this year, who was a top Junior in 2003, is also a huge source of inspiration. Baker was off of the tour for six years due to five surgeries before making a comeback last year. This spring he made the finals of a clay court ATP event in Nice, and then made it all the way to the fourth round of Wimbledon. Unranked a year ago, the 27-year-old Baker is now ranked No. 70 in the world. “Seeing that was unbelievable,” McClune said with a smile. “[Baker’s] such a great guy. We all love him, and seeing that just motivates me."

Still, McClune has a long way to go. Even though he had a breakthrough week in Winston-Salem, his ranking only climbed from 303 to 287, due to the small amount of points available in the opening rounds of 250 events. His plan for the rest of the year will stay the same—after a week off he will head to China for two weeks to play in Challengers there, then come back to the United States to finish up the year on the USTA Challenger circuit.

"It's been really tough,” he said when reflecting on his struggles since turning pro. “There's been a lot of ups and downs. I had a hip injury that took me out for six months. I've had a hand injury for the last year that's kept me out every couple of months. But right now, everything's going well and I'm staying healthy, and hopefully I can just keep going."

McClune’s struggles are far from unusual, and as the last Grand Slam of the year kicks off under the bright lights in New York City, his story serves as another reminder that there’s a lot more to the tennis circuit than meets the eye, and that playing tennis for a living is also working for a living. "It's not all glam, and it's not what you see on TV when you see the top 10 guys and how they're living. If you're not in the top 50, you're on the grind, you're staying in motels, you're not making money,” he said matter-of-factly. “It's not all fame."

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