January 19, 2009
Christina McHale, Ranked 374th, Is Ready for Australian Open
By DAVID WALDSTEIN
A warm recollection swept over Margarita McHale last week as she walked onto the tennis grounds at Melbourne Park with her 16-year-old daughter, Christina. Ten years ago, when the McHales were living in Hong Kong, they visited the site of the Australian Open during a family vacation.
It was off-season then, and the grounds were quiet and lonely. But Margarita, whose two daughters were just beginning to play youth tennis in Hong Kong, wanted to see the place. Christina, then 6, remembers nothing of that trip, but Margarita recalled her running and playing with her older sister, Lauren, oblivious to their surroundings.
“I never thought we would ever come back here,” Margarita, whose family now lives in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., said Sunday from her hotel in Melbourne.
“It’s so far away, and I never thought there would ever be a reason to come.”
But Christina, the 374th-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, gave her one. Last month, she capped a blistering run by qualifying for the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event of the year and her first top-tier professional tournament.
At the wild-card tournament in Boca Raton, Fla., Christina outlasted top young players including Madison Brengle, Asia Muhammad and CoCo Vandeweghe in the round-robin stage before defeating Gail Brodsky in the final to qualify for Australia.
On Tuesday, her first-round opponent will be Jessica Moore, an 18-year-old Australian, a more fortunate draw than any 6-foot Russians or Americans with the last name Williams.
“Still, it’s going to be challenging,” Christina said. “She’s a local girl, and the fans are going to be behind her all the way.”
A small but stout contingent will be supporting Christina, including her mother; her father, John, who moved the family back to New Jersey in 1998 after working five years in Hong Kong; and Carlos Cano, her New Jersey-based coach. Lauren, a freshman who plays for Princeton, will be following from her dormitory.
As talented as Christina is, not even her closest supporters envisioned this level of success even a year ago, when she was ranked No. 712. In 2007, she showed enough talent to earn an invitation to the United States Tennis Association
’s high-performance youth training facility in Boca Raton, but her first year there was marked by inconsistent results.
Last September, everything changed. She began making regular visits home to work with Cano and spend more time with her family. Then, in the wake of a third-round loss in the United States Open junior tournament, she had an outstanding fall.
She helped the United States win the Junior Fed Cup in Mexico and reached the final of the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament for girls 18 and under.
Christina has vaulted 338 spots in the rankings in less than 13 months, and she now shares a locker room with No. 1 Jelena Jankovic.
“I never expected her to get into a Grand Slam tournament this soon,” John McHale said last week before leaving for Melbourne. “She’s been doing very well lately, but this definitely caught us by surprise.”
It also seems to have surprised a few tournament officials. On her first visit to the grounds in 10 years, Christina checked in at the players’ desk looking for a practice court and a partner.
Margarita said the man behind the counter told her daughter, “You have to go across the street to the public courts” to practice for the qualifying tournament.
Christina informed the man that she was, in fact, in the main draw. In the locker room, another official had to be corrected after directing her to the tiny lockers reserved for those in the qualifying tournament. Shortly thereafter, Christina was on a court with Sania Mirza, India’s top professional, and the best player she had ever hit with.
“It went well,” Christina said. “I kept up some long rallies with her, so that’s encouraging.”
More encouraging is the way she has been hitting the ball over the past five months, since Cano helped her fix a minor flaw in the backswing of her signature forehand, leading to impressive results and soaring confidence.
Christina remains in awe of the pros who have suddenly become her peers.
In the players’ cafeteria this weekend, she said, she and her mother sat at a table between Rafael Nadal
and Marat Safin
on one side and Serena Williams
on the other, trying desperately to keep from gawking.
“I still kind of do it,” she said. “I can’t help it. I’m like, ‘Hey, Mom, look who it is.’ ”
All of those players had been there before. So had Christina. But this time, she is sure to remember every detail.