Mackenzie McDonald’s real education began when he left UCLA and turned pro after winning the 2016 NCAA singles and doubles tennis titles.

The Piedmont, Calif., native, an all-America selection in each of his three seasons as a Bruin, found it tough to gain a foothold on the men’s tour. He’s a small guy, at 5-10 and 160 pounds, and was dropped into a world populated by 6-foot-5 giants armed with booming serves and freakish wingspans. He was faced with something new every day.

“Honestly, it’s a massive learning experience. The tour has been a lot tougher than I thought,” McDonald said. “I was expecting it to be tough but there’s a lot of speed bumps along the way. You’ve got to be on your toes at all times. A lot of stuff changes: the schedule, the training, you’ve got to stay healthy. There’s a lot to deal with, for sure.

“I think I’ve managed it really well. I’ve put in a full effort to my tennis since I stepped out of UCLA. I think I’ve given myself a lot of good opportunities.”

McDonald took several significant steps last year, starting when he won his first-round match at the Australian Open as a qualifier and then took No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov to five sets. He built on that by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, where he won a tiebreaker from Milos Raonic but lost in four sets. A few months later he beat Raonic in a best-of-three match in the first round of the Shanghai Masters tournament, a victory McDonald considers the best of his career.

He soon might have other big triumphs to add to his list. After winning his first-round match against Andrey Rublev at this year’s Australian Open, he pushed 2018 runner-up and No. 6 seed Marin Cilic on Wednesday (Australian time), going to the net often and saving five set points in the second set before Cilic used 25 aces to prevail, 7-5, 6-7 (9), 6-4, 6-4 in 3 hours and 37 minutes. Progress takes time and patience. McDonald, ranked No. 81, has the skill and tenacity to rise in the rankings.

“It’s just a different level, so it’s getting used to playing on the bigger stages, playing against a lot better players and being able to compete at that level,” he said in a phone interview last week.

Although he didn’t get as far as he’d hoped in Australia, he will get a consolation prize of sorts. His schedule now allows him to play in the Oracle Challenger Series event at the Newport Beach Tennis Club, which starts Monday and ends Jan. 27. It’s the third stop of the series, which allows players to gain points toward earning a wild-card berth into the main draw of the BNP Open at Indian Wells in March. Also expected in the 48-player singles draws are Jack Sock, Bradley Klahn and Reilly Opelka on the men’s side and CoCo Vandeweghe, Sofia Kenin, Sachia Vickery, Lauren Davis and Eugenie Bouchard on the women’s side.

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