Maxime Cressy, Marcos Giron and Mackenzie McDonald were just metres from the BNP Paribas Open locker room on Wednesday afternoon when they cracked up while posing for a group picture. It was just like old times.
This week, they are all competing in the main draw of the season’s first ATP Masters 1000 event, one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world. But not long ago, all three were student-athletes at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), a little more than a two-hour drive away.
“It’s pretty amazing that we have three guys in the Top 75 from the same school. We haven’t seen that in a while, I don’t think,” McDonald said. “It’s pretty cool. We have a little bit of variety with Max being a very different player than Marcos and I. I think it shows how strong of a school UCLA is, but also how strong college tennis can be. I think it’s a great route and I’m a big advocate for college tennis.”
There were several months when the trio was on campus at the same time. In the spring of 2016, former NCAA singles champion Giron was a volunteer assistant coach for the team while rehabbing from hip surgery. McDonald was a junior, who went on to win the NCAA singles title that year and Cressy was a freshman, who roomed with McDonald.
Now they are all in the Top 75 of the ATP Rankings and excited to put on a show on familiar turf in California.
There are plenty of former college players on the ATP Tour, including John Isner, Kevin Anderson and Steve Johnson. But having three players from the same school who were on campus together enjoying so much success has been a special experience for the former Bruins. According to Giron, it was not necessarily a given.
“It’s tough to say. I knew that we were good, I knew they were very good in college. But to what level we would get to on the Tour, you just don’t know,” Giron said. “There’s so many guys from juniors that were phenomenal — that you think they’re going to be like Top 30 in the world, no question — that didn’t make it.
“I knew the potential was there, but I didn’t know to what extent. And I still think the best is yet to come, to be honest.”
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World No. 72 Cressy has intrigued the tennis world in recent months with his aggressive serve-and-volley game, which helped him reach his maiden ATP Tour final at the Melbourne Summer Set, where he played Rafael Nadal.
But when he began his career at UCLA, he was not immediately touted like Giron and McDonald. Cressy was at the very bottom of the lineup his freshman year.
“I was recruited to be a doubles player. I was mainly playing doubles and most people saw me as a contributor to the team in doubles and not singles. Obviously I was not the one training on the bigger courts, Cressy said. “I was at the end playing on the back courts, but I always had the determination to get to the top part of the lineup. The fire within me was always there.”
Giron and McDonald — as well as other former UCLA student-athletes — have enjoyed watching Cressy’s rapid rise.
“It’s pretty interesting. I think it’s unexpected for sure. We all knew he had such a powerful game. I remember freshman year, his athleticism was remarkable. But the way he’s mentally put things together, found his way, really honed in on his skills and taken his own direction is admirable,” McDonald said. “He’s a very hard worker, he’s always been a hard worker. To see him put it all together and have the success he is having now is pretty amazing.”
While Cressy grew up in France, Giron and McDonald are both Californians. They were also UCLA teammates when Giron was a junior and McDonald was a freshman. They remain close friends and competing at home this week makes the experience even more special.
“I think it’s really cool for Marcos and I. I grew up playing tennis all over California and traveling to Southern California when I was super, super young, and I always looked up to Marcos,” McDonald said. “He went to UCLA before I did, and I remember being on the team and really looking up to him a lot and then watching him win NCAAs. That motivated me to do the same, follow his path and go pro. I think it’s so cool that we went through a lot of the same processes.”
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Grant Chen was an assistant coach and then the associate head coach at UCLA during the time Giron, McDonald and Cressy were at the university. And the current Southern Methodist University head coach said that there is an unspoken bond on the professional tennis circuit.
“I think college tennis and team tennis are unlike any other component of tennis, which is normally such an individual sport,” Chen said. “I know some of Marcos’ greatest memories are when he goes on the road in Europe and sees an old UCLA classmate at events out there. I think it’s nice for these guys to have people whom they’re really familiar with and knew them long before they were Top 100 in the world to know how much they love this, how much they’ve wanted this.”
Chen added there is a UCLA tennis alumni WhatsApp chat featuring more than 130 former student-athletes from the school, including current doubles star Jean-Julien Rojer. The Bruins all support each other, which is something that has helped continue to motivate today’s stars.
“When you go to UCLA you’re inspired. I think we’re all inspired by the previous UCLA generations, by the coaching staff. I think also we push each other to succeed,” Giron said. “Whenever we see another guy do well, we’re happy for them and it makes us believe that we can do it also.”