Mitch McDaniels spent last week playing tennis in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, a resort town on the coast of the Red Sea, although he might dispute use of the term “playing”
He was at work.
In consecutive days, he beat Suc Dominik of the Czech Republic, Michiel De Krom of the Netherlands and Maxime Pauwels of Belgium.
McDaniels was so good in the Egypt F3 Futures championships that he didn’t lose a set until he met Spain’s Pablo Vivero Gonzalez in the Round of 32. Gonzalez is ranked No. 378 in the world.
If you are No. 378 in the world’s tennis rankings, it is the equivalent of being a mid-level major-league baseball player, or someone on an active NBA roster.
That’s how far the Salpointe Catholic grad has progressed in international tennis. Not bad for someone who walked onto the New Mexico Lobos tennis squad without a scholarship in 2010.
McDaniels left Egypt on Saturday and after a 32-hour journey was back in Tucson with far more than some primo stories about playing professional tennis in Finland, Romania, Turkey, Tunisia and Greece.
He is now No. 952 in the world rankings, which might not be Andy Roddick territory, but it’s like a baseball player progressing from the Rookie League to-Triple-A ball in a year.
‘’It took me four or five months on tour before I got an ATP win,” McDaniels was saying Monday on his home turf, the Reffkin Tennis Center. “A lot of guys throw in the towel long before that.”
McDaniels earned a psychology degree at the University of New Mexico while twice being an All-Mountain West Conference academic honoree, and created an enduring reputation in Tucson by winning six consecutive men’s city singles championships from 2011-16.
But rather than work the 9 to 5 shift somewhere, McDaniels has chosen the all-day, all-night route to pro tennis.
With no outside funding, unable to pay for a coach and trainer — stringing his own rackets, paying for his own equipment, and even cooking out of a crockpot he keeps in the trunk of his Ford Focus — McDaniels has embarked on a formidable journey for any young man.
“I’m still getting better,” he says. “People tell me ‘try something else,’ but I haven’t reached my potential and I’m motivated to do so. I love this lifestyle.”
Some people’s definition of love is different than others.
Because he has no contract, McDaniels is a perpetual free agent. Here’s his typical schedule while in Tucson waiting to resume the ITF Futures tour in Europe next month:
• Practice from 9 to 11 a.m., at the UA’s Robson Tennis Center, serving as a de factor mentor/volunteer assistant coach to the Wildcats’ men’s team.
• Perform a daily fitness and stretching program in the afternoon.
• Work 6 p.m. till midnight as an Uber driver.
In 2016, McDaniels estimates he spent about $25,000 for travel expenses, and earned about $12,000 on the tennis circuit. His Uber job allows him to stay liquid. While in Tucson, he lives at home with four siblings; his parents are able to help him pay for insurance. When possible, he splits travel expenses with tennis acquaintances.
By necessity, he has become a savvy travel agent, spending just $700 on round trip airline fare from Phoenix to Cairo, Egypt.
McDaniels knows that if he is to climb into the top 200 or 300 of the ATP rankings, he’ll need more financing, if only for a coach and a trainer. He has begun a Go Fund Me account (gofundme.com/mitch-mcdaniels-tennis) and is hopeful he can improve the next five years as steadily as he did in 2016.
“It’s complicated; to get better, you have to train with better players,” he says. “As far as I know, I’m the only player from the state of Arizona in the rankings. And I’m probably the only one on Tour who didn’t start playing until he was 14.
“Tennis is seen as a so-called country-club sport, with wealthy parents supporting their kids and providing them with the top coaching, training and equipment. I’m in the handful of those who came up without the financial backing.”
Only two Tucson men’s tennis players have been successful in national-level careers, Bill Lenoir in the 1950s and ’60s, and Jim Grabb in the 1980s and ’90s. Most of the city’s other prominent tennis players chose to coach, teach or go into private business.
Rincon High’s Sudhakar Kosaraju, who won three straight state singles tiles from 1989-91, graduated from Harvard and is now an executive at Accenture in New York City. Palo Verde’s Dominic Bermudez, who won back-to-back state titles in 2010-11, is now a sales executive in San Francisco for LeadGenius, a computer software firm.
McDaniels has another plan. He began last year ranked No. 1,600 in the world. This week he is No. 952. It’s a journey like few others.
“My days and nights are crazy,” he says. “It takes a lot of willpower to do this — there’s no party time — but I’m totally committed to it.”