When Courtney Donaldson first arrived at Buenos Aires airport in January 2012, he did not know the language and customs of Argentina and did not know anyone there.
As he approached an area where family members and drivers greet arriving passengers, he looked for the person who was supposed to pick him up, wondering if he had made a huge mistake.
But as his eyes moved back and forth, he spotted a man in tennis gear with the distinct rusty down of red clay stuck to his socks.
It was exactly what he was looking for.
Argentinian red clay, which accumulates like a badge of honor on the shoes and socks of everyone who plays there, was the exact reason he was taking his son, Jared Donaldson, to Buenos Aires.
“It was what we thought he needed to improve his game,” said Courtney Donaldson, 52. “That’s why we went there.
Some Americans travel to Argentina to learn tango, others to study the fine arts of winemaking or to immerse themselves in the language.
Jared Donaldson, a 19-year-old from Rhode Island, went to Argentina at the age of 15 for almost two and a half years to learn Argentine clay tennis and study the art of topspin.
What Donaldson learned there helped him beat 12th seed David Goffin in the first round of the US Open, then beat Viktor Troicki, 32, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, Thursday.
“I learned how to give ball spin and shape and develop a longer tip construction,” Donaldson, ranked No. 122 in the world, said ahead of Thursday’s game. “I learned the game better and also had the chance to learn a lot about a different country.”
Against Troicki, who looked exhausted from his five-set match in the first round, Donaldson took control by forcing him to run and implementing the point-building skills he had honed on South American clay.
The unorthodox idea of taking Donaldson to Argentina came mainly from his father, a construction company owner in Rhode Island who never played much tennis. But as her son began to show promise and declare his ambition to become a professional tennis player, Courtney Donaldson began to pay close attention to it.
He saw how his son hit flat lasers near the net. On the hard courts of Rhode Island – and much of the United States – he was rewarded for that power play with quick winners.
But that wasn’t the game Courtney Donaldson saw on TV, with the pros hitting bow shots higher up the net with a considerable lift. Watching an exhibition match between Roger Federer and Andre Agassi, Donaldson saw Agassi hit a flat, hard blow for a winner. Donaldson said he heard Federer warn Agassi: Don’t you know the game is on the spin now?
Donaldson said he read a book by Federer and remembered a phrase about training indoors on hard, outdoors on red. If that was good enough for Federer, then it would be good for his son too.
He inquired in Spain, where red clay is also the preferred surface, but did not get a response within the deadline. Luckily, a friend of his knew Pablo Bianchi, a former pro who coached players in Argentina. When Donaldson held out his hand, Bianchi responded by going downstairs.
“All the other kids and the coaches were so welcoming to Jared,” said Courtney Donaldson. “They kind of adopted him as one of their own. It was really nice to see.
Jared could have trained in the United States, but his dad felt he needed a lot of clay court work, which can be hard to find there.
“Everyone is different,” said Jared Donaldson. “And that was the best thing for me as an individual player. For someone else it could be something completely different. But I needed it and it worked really well.
The Donaldsons rented a small room in a working-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires’ Núñez neighborhood, which quickly became infested with particles of red clay. Jared usually trained twice a day and took high school classes online, he said. (He had been homeschooled since fifth grade, his father said.)
They went out for dinner, tasting succulent grilled steaks and savory empanadas, and gradually learned enough Spanish to get by. One of Jared’s cultural teachings was that “in Argentina it took them two hours to have a little coffee,” he said.
After a few months, Jared’s mother Rebecca would visit him and his father would return to Rhode Island to be with Jared’s sister.
When his father was in Argentina, they went to sporting events, like Boca Juniors football matches, polo matches, and tennis tournaments. When her mother was there, they saw the sights and went to museums, especially the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires.
“I’ve been there a few times,” Jared said. “I found it really nice to relax and look at the art, to relax a bit.”
He returned to the United States for months in the spring and summer, but returned to Argentina for two more stints over the next two years, until the style of play finally took hold.
“In Argentina, you’re going to have to hit the ball with form and learn to play tennis on a full court,” said Taylor Dent, retired player and coach.
When Donaldson returned to the United States for good, he needed help with his service and hired Dent and Dent’s father, Phil, a service expert. No one will ever know for sure whether the Argentine experience made Donaldson a better tennis player, but the family sees it as a big success for other reasons.
“If Jared stopped playing tennis today, he would consider it a pretty cool experience 10 years from now,” his father said. “Forget tennis; it was quite a rewarding and maturing experience. I think he really grew up there.