TEMPE—On Oct. 4, after a year full of uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, men's tennis blue-chip freshman Max McKennon is slated to compete in the French Open Junior Championship in Paris, France, the final Grand Slam of 2020 and coincidentally the final tournament of the young Sun Devil's junior career. McKennon, the 61st-ranked junior in the world, will begin the tournament in position 52-of-56 and is one of just four Americans in the main draw–and the only one attending college. The experience of playing in one of the world's most renowned Grand Slams is something the young Sun Devil has been gearing up for his entire life, and being practically alone in a foreign country isn't a hindrance at all.
"My dad got me playing tennis when I was three. He always played and he loved it," McKennon said. "What really sparked my interest was the individuality of the sport. I used to play basketball and a bunch of other team sports. In team-sports you can get subbed out if you're playing bad, or the coach can call a timeout. When you're playing tennis, it's so individual and you have to think of everything on your own. That was probably what sparked my love for it."
McKennon began playing competitively when he was 12 years old and has already made a name for himself in such a short time. At just 18 years old, the five-star recruit out of Newport Beach, Calif., holds a 74-28 career singles record. McKennon peaked at No. 61 in the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Junior Rankings this past spring after collecting a pair of singles and doubles titles—the third and fourth titles of his career. He was vying for a spot in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon junior tournaments before those were both called off due to the pandemic. The French Open is the final opportunity McKennon has to play in a juniors Grand Slam before fully shifting his attention to competing with the Sun Devils.
"I think it will be an unbelievable way to go out," McKennon said. "It's obviously one of the top four tournaments of the year and everybody really wants to do well. I started off very well in January before COVID-19 happened, and I've been building off of it since March. I still feel confident in my game. I feel like I'm getting better every day and I just want to showcase what I can do."
Given the level of competition, the circumstances leading up to the tournament, and the success he's produced leading up to now, it wouldn't be surprising if McKennon felt an added level of pressure heading into the championship, but he's keeping an even keel heading into the competition.
"I don't really like to get into pressure," McKennon said. "I don't really feel like I have much pressure on me. I just want to go out and have a blast, have fun, and enjoy the moment more than anything."
Sun Devils head coach Matt Hill has faith in McKennon and believes the young blood will fare well at the tournament. Since first seeing McKennon dominate the field at a U16 tournament in Kalamazoo, Hill has always liked what he's seen.
"A lot of really good things stood out to me, but his skill set with the racket was really high," Hill said. "He's a lefty, he was going to be a taller guy, and the things he could do with the ball and the racket were pretty special. I watched him match-after-match. We look for a guy that we feel has a really big long-term upside, and we felt like there were some things there that he did that would transfer really well to the pro tour and the highest level that college tennis has to offer."
McKennon has matured both physically and mentally since that tournament, and that growth is something that he feels will help carry him in Paris.
"Before this year, I wasn't really doing that well on the ITF tour," McKennon said. "This year I learned how to be more mature on and off the court. I don't go in saying 'I've got this in the bag.' I've gotten in better shape in the last few years too and matured physically. That's definitely been an important part of my success."
Hill echoed the changes McKennon's made to his game and stressed how crucial it'll be for the young stud to stay focused, saying that "he doesn't have to overplay to beat the players that are in the draw."
"I think that's a common mistake for inexperienced guys," Hill said. "When they hit a new platform and they hit a new level, they want to overplay, but the courts are quick. Even though it's red clay, it's a fast red clay that'll suit him really well."
Clay is a surface that many players struggle on but McKennon has a proven ability to adapt to whatever surface he's playing on. His winning percentages on clay and hard courts are very similar at 71% and 73%, respectively. In total, McKennon holds a 25-10 record on clay.
"I do prefer hard courts but I've always liked the clay courts," McKennon said. "I always think I play pretty well, my game suits it pretty well. I'm not as used to playing on clay because there's just not much clay around in the United States, but I'm very confident in myself on the clay and I think it'll be okay."
Despite that confidence, how far McKennon progresses through the Open will come back to his ability to stay mentally sharp on the court, especially if he starts to get backed into a corner.
"He's not going to just cruise through these matches, that's just not how it works," Hill said. "His ability to stay calm when things aren't going his way or he gets unlucky breaks or he doesn't execute, his ability to just kind of stay the course and live in the match even though it's not going well, that'll be huge."
Whatever happens, playing in a Grand Slam just a few months before his collegiate career kicks off will give McKennon an enormous amount of irreplicable experience.
"I for sure think it'll be a big building block in my career here at ASU," McKennon said. "I feel like it'll make me more mature mentally and physically. I'm excited to see the top guys in the world and what they can do and use this experience to grow throughout my time at ASU. But honestly, I'm just happy I get one last opportunity before my junior career is over."