It made perfect sense for Christina McHale to take stock of her career as she and her mother drove through southern California one day in early March. The two were headed to a Women's Tennis Association tournament in Indian Wells, where Christina would go on to defeat the world's No. 3-ranked player, Petra Kvitova. But for a few precious hours beforehand, the McHales were in highway heaven – a wide open road, nothing in the way. Not unlike Christina's sprint through the world rankings.
McHale is moving so fast, she had surged to No. 32 as of a few weeks ago, jump-starting her followers' silent countdown to the top 10. But don't try doing the math in McHale's presence. To her, obsessing over the rankings is like staring into the sun: powerful and hypnotic, but ultimately a bad choice.
"Honestly, I try not to focus on things like that," McHale says through her cell phone. "Putting a ranking on myself is one of the things I don't like to do. If I keep doing what I'm doing, continuing to work hard and competing, it'll happen when it's ready to happen."
Those in McHale's inner circle say that modesty is genuine; she has never been wired for bragging. Instead, Christina, 19, remains remarkably friendly and open, practically unchanged from the start of her climb two years ago when she cracked the top 200, placing 198th.
In other ways, however, she is so much different now. Christina is almost out of her teens, stronger on the court, more evolved tactically and fully acclimated to the universe she has chosen. There was no ordinary high school education for her; McHale got her diploma by taking online courses after the age of 15. College was out of the question, as well, which means she has missed out on campus life and dormitory friendships.
All that has been replaced by global travel 8 or 9 months out of the year, following a hazy trail of airports, hotels, locker rooms and, finally, the courts themselves. Other than a brief wind-down at home in Englewood Cliffs during the Christmas holidays, Christina is forced to rely on Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with her pals.
It can be a crushing lifestyle, but McHale considers it a fair trade in pursuit of becoming the world's best female tennis player. It's not a crazy dream, either, as McHale has shown an ability to destroy even the game's top-ranked players, evidenced by her breakthrough performances in 2011.
In the span of one calendar year, McHale beat the world's No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki, won a first-round match at Wimbledon, upset two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova and got as far as the third round of the U.S. Open, beating No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli, a former Wimbledon finalist, in the process.
The rise wasn't just breathtaking, it was volcanic enough for industry observers to predict McHale will ultimately fill the void among American female tennis players now that the Williams sisters – Venus and Serena – are both in decline.
To that, however, McHale smiles demurely and says not so fast.
"To me, it feels like things are moving steadily – not too quickly but not too slow, either," she says. "For the most part, I played well all last year, but that was last year. I need to concentrate on what's ahead of me and continuing to improve my game."
There are a few items on the to-do list in 2012. From a technical standpoint, McHale is being urged by her coaches to stay closer to the base line and better identify when to attack. And when approaching the net, McHale wants to be stronger, to deliver the kind of put-away shots that are like oxygen to tournament finalists.
So when Christina talks about growing her game, she means just that – hitting the weights, developing upper-body strength as her body fills out and matures. It's all part of the struggle for even the smallest advantage among the elite.
"At this point, everyone knows my game," McHale says. "When you're ranked, everyone comes at you. But the thing is, I know their game too. That's why I'm working hard to get to the next level. My coaches know I have to get stronger, so I can keep adding on and adjusting."
The realistic goal for 2012? Christina wouldn't mind advancing even further at the U.S. Open, the tournament she calls her "favorite." McHale won her first-round match against Polona Hercog in 2009, a dizzying straight-sets conquest that officially put her on the industry's radar. McHale went out quickly in 2010 but rallied last September, defeating Aleksandra Wozniak and Bartoli in the first two rounds before finally losing to 25th-ranked Maria Kirilenko in straight sets.
Nothing fires up McHale's imagination like a theoretical trip to the finals, having sampled the adrenaline rush last year.
"It felt like everyone was cheering for me and supporting me," she says. "The whole thing was great."
She knows better than to re-live those moments for very long, though. Onward and upward is McHale's mantra for 2012, pushing through a relentless schedule. Her mother, Margarita, is her travel partner throughout most of the year. Her sister, Lauren, who plays tennis at the University of North Carolina, comes home for the summer and joins the entourage between semesters. And at least one of McHale's coaches – on this March day it was Jay Gooding – rounds out the brain trust that keeps McHale alternately pumped up and unruffled as the situation warrants.
So far in 2012, McHale has justified that climb up the rankings ladder, having made it to the quarterfinals of the Qatar Ladies Open in late February before losing to fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska. Two weeks later, in the Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., McHale delivered a message to her peers when she took down Kvitova in three sets.
Even though McHale lost in the fourth round to 18th-ranked Angelique Kerber, she offered her family and friends a glimpse into the future. The day is coming when she will be among the top 10, at which point she'll be able to finally smile, exhale slowly and admit she had been counting the rungs one by one. Just like the rest of us.