Tennis Week in Newport begins in earnest on Monday with first-round matches of the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships at the Newport Casino. The only men’s professional grass-court tournament remaining in North America launches the ATP World Tour’s summer season in the United States.
Two-time champion John Isner leads the field of 32 singles players, but 18-year-old Jared Donaldson of Chepachet is the big news for Rhode Island tennis fans. He will play the final Opening Day match on the stadium court against American Austin Krajicek.
Donaldson is quite a story. At 12 he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a professional tennis player. But his was no idle adolescent dream, no passing fantasy while he watched matches from Wimbledon or the U.S. Open on television. Even then he was determined to make it on the pro tour, an international grind that usually starts with small tournaments in remote outposts known as Futures, progresses to Challengers, the Triple A of pro tennis, and goes all the way up to the well-known Grand Slam events: the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and the most prestigious of them all, Wimbledon.
Donaldson, 18 now, has worked hard and relentlessly to get where he is today, which is No. 155 in the world. Yes, a kid from Little Rhody is the 155th best male tennis player on the planet. Think about that for a minute. There are 2,271 players ranked on the ATP computer, and Jared Donaldson of Chepachet is No. 155. He is one of seven teenagers in the Top 200 and, get this, the 12th-ranked American and top American teen on the tour.
No man from Rhode Island has ranked so high on the men’s professional tour.
It didn’t happen overnight. He started working with local pro Mario Llano when he was about 7, home schooled in 2008-2009 so he could spend more time training and the following academic year began on-line courses. He hit thousands of balls and then hit the gym to improve his fitness.
The work started to pay off in 2009, when he was 12 and won the USTA National Spring Championship in Delray Beach, Fla. Eschewing junior tournaments in the U.S. and USTA development programs, he and at least one of his parents spent winters in Buenos Aires, where he improved his game on clay. He earned his first ATP point in 2012 in his Futures debut when he upset the top seed in a tournament in Caracas, Venezuela. The following week he upset another No. 1 seed. He played for the U.S. Junior Davis Cup Team, which finished third, and returned home in time to join the Ponaganset High School team for the second half of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League season. The freshman ignored the controversy that arose when small-minded critics complained about his mid-season debut. He satisfied the eligibility requirements, qualified for the state singles tournament and defeated Smithfield sophomore Matt Kuhar in the championship match witnessed by 300 spectators at Slater Park in Pawtucket. That was the only loss of Kuhar’s high-school career. Donaldson played tournaments in Europe and Africa that summer and never played another match for Ponaganset.
He continued to work on his game at home and abroad. In 2013 he reached the final of the USTA Boys 18 Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich. Last year he signed on with former Hall of Fame champion Taylor Dent, won three Futures tournaments in June, qualified for the ATP event in Washington, D.C., and received a wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open. He lost to Gael Monfils of France in the first round but played well. He reached the third round of the U.S. Junior Open. At 17, he also turned pro.
This year, Donaldson won singles and doubles (with fellow U.S. teen Stefan Kozlov) titles at the Maui Challenger in January and reached quarterfinals and semifinals at other Challenger events. On the ATP World Tour he received a wild card for the Memphis Open in February and defeated Kozlov in the first round for his first ATP World Tour victory. He lost to American Sam Querrey in the second round. He qualified for the Wimbledon tuneup at Queen’s Club and lost to Isner in the first round by the respectable score of 7-6 (13-11), 6-4.
In the Grand Slam events he lost in the second round of qualifying at the Australian Open, reached the third round of qualifying for the French Open and lost in the first round of qualifying at Wimbledon.
Donaldson has grown to 6-foot-2 from 5-foot-2 and to 160 pounds from 90 in the last six years. His game has grown as well, and it will be on display for Rhode Islanders to cheer Monday afternoon.
Isner won in Newport in 2011 and 2012, each time as the top seed. He snapped the Curse of the Casino by becoming the first No. 1 seed to win. Lleyton Hewitt, the retiring Australian, chose not to return this summer after three consecutive trips to the final and a title in 2014. He also won the doubles last year. Big serving Ivo Karlovic, the runner-up in 2014, is back as the No. 2 seed. Rajeev Ram, the 2009 champ, is back again. He and Isner will meet in the first round, most likely on Tuesday.
Play through Friday is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is set for Saturday at noon and the singles and doubles finals next Sunday, starting at 2.