As breakout tennis seasons go, Christina McHale had a pretty good 2011. She beat world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. She won a first-round match at Wimbledon. She upended two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova. Then she topped all of those results in the final Grand Slam tournament of the season, upsetting No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli, a former Wimbledon finalist, to advance to the third round of the U.S. Open.
By all accounts, it was a season to remember.
And now, it’s time to forget.
As 2012 begins in earnest – the year’s first Grand Slam starts Sunday at the Australian Open – the North Jersey native McHale is more focused on moving forward than looking back. For all the magic, excitement, anticipation and energy she created with two wins on the Flushing Meadows courts so close to her home, the headline-making result won’t mean much if it doesn’t lead to more.
And she knows it.
“Last year’s U.S. Open was a really exciting time for me, but now I am just trying to move on and focus on this new season and upcoming tournaments,” McHale said from Melbourne, where she has been since early this month. “I was able to win a couple of matches in the slams at the end of last year so I hope to be able to improve upon that for this upcoming year. It’s always really exciting to be competing in a Grand Slam so I’m looking forward to starting the season here in Australia.”
This is how it works for top athletes: a taste of success doesn’t fill you; it makes you hungry for more.
McHale, just 19 years old, is intent on making last year’s success a mere prelude to success yet to come. She’s reached the third round of a major; now she has eyes on reaching the second week of play and ultimately, a title of her own. Her 2012 journey begins with a first-round match against 24th-seeded Czech Lucie Safarova.
McHale followed her U.S. Open success with rigorous months of training at the National Tennis Center in Queens, a move that allowed her to return, if temporarily, to her home in Englewood Cliffs. Back in the arms of her family, parents John and Margarita (her traveling partner) and sister Lauren (a top collegiate tennis player at the University of North Carolina), McHale put her mind and body to work toward the future.
She enters the season ranked No. 43 in the world, and one of only two Americans in the top 50. But while No. 13 Serena Williams all but admitted she is just holding on to a tennis career she never really loved, while Serena’s fellow Grand Slam-winning sister Venus Williams remains sidelined by a neurological medical condition, there is an obvious void in the world of American women’s tennis. McHale is a popular choice to fill it.
“I put in a lot of hard work this off-season while I was at home, so I hope all that work will translate into more success in these type of tournaments,” McHale said.
McHale has long since mastered the art of sidestepping public pressure to be that next great American tennis star, politely declining to cast herself in any sort of savior role. She is largely quiet and generally reserved – she barely cracked a smile at the U.S. Open until a final, upset-clinching ace. But make no mistake – she already has been ordained as the freshest young hope to come along in a while, anointed in an ESPN magazine poll as the top rising talent, included in many Australian Open previews as a player to watch.
She traveled to the other side of the globe just after New Year’s and played in the ASB Classic in New Zealand, losing a second-round match to Kuznetsova. Then it was on to Melbourne.
“I’ve been in Australia for about a week now and I have been getting in some good practice sets with some of the other players and keeping up with my fitness workouts,” she said. “It has been raining on and off a bit since we got here so I’ve also been doing a lot of waiting in the players lounge.”
While McHale waits to play, the tennis world waits too. After a breakout 2011, McHale has captured our attention. Continued success in 2012 and she will become a household name.