Theo McDonald, 15, is searching for an upset.
A year after almost pulling off a shocker against former professional tennis player and UNLV standout Joel Kielbowicz in the Pacific Northwest Championships main draw as a 14-year-old, the Bellevue native and No. 1 recruit in the Northwest returns to the Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club, looking to finish the job this time.
McDonald finished fourth in state as a freshman at Bellevue High, before taking a scholarship to move across the country and attend the IMG Academy Bollettieri Tennis, a tennis-specialized boarding school in Bradenton, Florida.
The IMG Academy has schooled 10 No. 1 world-ranked tennis professionals, the likes of Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic.
After a year honing his skills for three-plus hours a day, mixed with International Tennis Federation tournaments, McDonald feels like a new player.
But the near-upset against Kielbowicz still brings back warm memories.
“I always think of that (match),” McDonald said. “I played really well. I had the crowd with me. I love playing on these courts because there’s nothing to lose here. You can give what you have and that’s what I did last year and I played really well.”
This summer, he’s gained a year of the top experience available to young tennis standouts, but attributes an added level of confidence to his performance last year.
“I know I can play well in these courts and I know that it’s pushed me,” McDonald said. “Ever since this tournament last year, I’ve had this confidence that I can compete and I can play against these types of players.”
McDonald, whose current USTA standing is 43rd in the country, won the first set 7-6, but then lost the second set, 6-2, and the third by a narrow 7-6 margin against Kielbowicz last year.
It wasn’t until last November when the founder of IMG Academy, Nick Bollettieri, noticed McDonald’s skill set and potential while he was participating in the Bollettieri’s All-Star Charity Event at Stafford Hills Club in Tualatin, Oregon.
“First he started feeding me (during a drill), then he was like, ‘This guy hits a really big ball,’ ” McDonald recounted. “Then he was like, ‘Let’s get this guy some individual attention for now.’ They started videoing me.”
To the family’s complete surprise, Bollettieri selected McDonald for a free weeklong camp in Bradenton during the week before Bellevue High’s finals.
“It was such an honor to get that from (Bollettieri),” Theo’s mother, Shantha McDonald, said. “It’s a dream for all of us.
“It’s really inspired him to keep going.””
As young as he is, a mature, adult decision loomed: Stay in Bellevue and go to high school like his classmates, or leave the comforts of home to accept a scholarship to a lauded tennis academy.
After attempting to manage how he’d leave school and move away from home, McDonald eventually decided to head to the academy.
“It was a big move,” McDonald said. “I knew I wanted to go an extra step with tennis, professionally and college tennis, too.”
On Monday, McDonald beat Cal Lutheran commit Jake Haffner of Benton City, 6-4, 6-2, in the first round of open singles qualifying and will next face Jeffrey Whalen of Tacoma in the round of 32.