Lan Bale, who won four ATP doubles titles during his career, vividly remembers receiving the telephone call, even though it was roughly 17 years ago.
Craig McLachlan was looking for a coach for his two sons, Ben and Riki, in Queenstown, New Zealand, and heard that Bale was about to relocate to the tourist spot.
“I thought, What is this about?” said Bale, a South African who was working as an assistant tennis coach at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time. “But I said: ‘Yeah, of course. How old are they?’ ”
“They were 9 and 10,” he added with a laugh, expecting them to be older.
The unexpected conversation spawned a pair of tennis careers. Nearly two decades later, Ben McLachlan is becoming a force in doubles while his older brother, Riki, acts as his primary coach.
Ben McLachlan’s emergence dovetailed with his switch to represent Japan, where his mother, Yuriko, was born.
Over five months, beginning last September, McLachlan represented Japan in the Davis Cup, won the first ATP tournament he ever contested — in Tokyo — and advanced to the semifinals of the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam event.
McLachlan began 2017 ranked 200th in doubles, and found himself at a career-high 25th entering the French Open despite not having a regular partner.
The timing for McLachlan and Japanese tennis is especially good, with the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“It’s been a big confidence booster for me to go out and be able to play all these tour events now,” McLachlan, 26, said. “It’s been huge. The tournaments are awesome. They’re all new for me. I want to keep the good results going.”
Bale’s association with the brothers endures. He did not initially ponder pro careers for them. Progressing regionally and nationally and earning university scholarships were more pressing targets.
With the latter in mind, Bale made his own call to Berkeley to the longtime head of tennis at Cal, Peter Wright.
“I said, ‘I have these two boys for you, Coach,’ ” Bale said. “He said, ‘How old?’ I said 12 and 13, and we both had a really good laugh because there’s no way you could tell at 12 and 13 they could be at that level.”
The McLachlans did attend the university on scholarships and even played doubles together, posting a 17-11 record. Riki ultimately ruled out a playing career, saying he was not good enough.
“I got thrown into coaching and really enjoyed it,” he said.
He coached his brother from afar via Skype when Ben competed in tennis’s minor leagues, but now the brothers travel the tour together.
Another connection of Bale’s, the former Japanese pro Thomas Shimada, helped facilitate McLachlan’s change in country ties.
Bale first floated the idea to Shimada “five plus” years ago and touched base again as McLachlan’s ranking climbed to about 150th last year. At about the same time, Shimada had been hired as a national coach by Japan’s tennis federation.
Born in Philadelphia, Shimada himself opted to represent Japan during his career, claiming three doubles titles. He played in doubles at the Olympics in 2000, which probably would not have been possible if he had represented the United States, given its depth.
McLachlan spent several days practicing at the national tennis center in Tokyo and impressed Shimada. McLachlan took regular trips to Japan growing up, and he said he was “reasonably fluent” in Japanese.
Tennis players are sometimes offered a financial incentive to represent a different country — Kazakhstan built a formidable Davis Cup squad by attracting several players born in Russia — but McLachlan initially was not offered much.
“There was nothing really on the table there,” Shimada said. “So for his part, there was a bit of a leap of faith.”
McLachlan has recently received support funding, though he and Shimada did not disclose how much.
McLachlan’s switch, which became official last June, was welcomed by the Japanese star Kei Nishikori, Asia’s first Grand Slam men’s singles finalist.
“I was very happy he was going to play for Japan and especially for Davis Cup,” Nishikori said. “I think it helps a lot because he’s a great doubles player, and we don’t have much doubles players in my team.”
McLachlan did not have to wait long to be selected in a high-profile Davis Cup series, earning a berth in September for the World Group playoff against Brazil in Osaka.
McLachlan and Yasutaka Uchiyama lost, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2, to Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares, who are Grand Slam champions, but Japan won the playoff.
“I got a huge opportunity to play for them in the Davis Cup, which was massive for my confidence and experience,” McLachlan said.
McLachlan and Uchiyama subsequently received a wild card for the Japan Open a month later and lifted the trophy, beating Soares and Jamie Murray in straight sets in the final. Ariake Coliseum, which has a capacity of 10,000, was almost full, said Shimada, with Princess Mako among those watching.
McLachlan still did not have a steady doubles partner entering 2018.
He played with Jan-Lennard Struff at the Australian Open, not knowing much about his game and vice versa.
The pairing prospered, their potent serves contributing to a spot in the semifinals, where they came within two points of upsetting the eventual champions, Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic.
But Struff, a German, does not specialize in doubles, and he and McLachlan were only intermittently at the same tournaments.
McLachlan has had 10 partners this year. He and Struff are scheduled to compete together at the French Open and Wimbledon, where Craig — a pilot and author — and Yuriko will join their sons.
McLachlan and Struff are sixth in the race to reach the year-end championships in London, despite playing only four tournaments together this season.
Nishikori said he would like to partner with McLachlan in the future, adding that McLachlan has “great serves, great volleys” and “great talent for doubles.”
Musing about the interconnected moments in McLachlan’s rise, Shimada said more than luck was involved.
“It’s crazy to think of how all these semi-random pieces have come together,” he said. “Some of it is just luck. Luck in timing, but I think in some ways, as I’ve gotten to know Ben and his family, and I know Lan, they’ve done enough of the right things that sometimes the dots will connect.
“That’s a great lesson out of this.”