A fresh face gets taste of big stage
NEW YORK -- The first time she heard the news, 17-year-old
Sometimes, we forget. By tournament's end, everything about a Grand Slam event is massive -- the winner's check, the TV audience, the mountainous pile of a fortnight's worth of video and data and words and photographs, the very idea of history being made. Roger and Rafa and Venus and Serena and the rest of tennis' stars have heard the thunderous crowds, seen the winking, uncountable flashbulbs, for years. They are used to living large. We forget that somewhere, at some point, they all started small.
Christina McHale, an amateur ranked No. 381 in the world, grew up in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The Open has long been a Labor Day weekend rite for her family; for years father
They'd never once been in Ashe at night. Knew all the stars who had owned that stage: Agassi, Sampras, Seles, Graf. Heard about the unique scene: The biggest tennis stadium in the world, that windy, steep-walled vessel for 23,763 mouthy New Yorkers, had in 12 years become tennis' most raucous venue, mostly because of its singular after-dark feel, when the moon rises and the drinks flow. Courtside? It feels like you're sitting at the bottom of a well. "It's one of those cool experiences that you really can't explain until you get the opportunity to do,"
McHale's only previous Grand Slam experience was a first-round loss at this year's Australian Open. She received an automatic wild card into the U.S. Open draw by winning the USTA Girls' 18s National Championships last month, then beat her first top-100 opponent ever,
Yet, though Christina is shorter and less powerful, she's tougher than she seems: At 15, she decided to move away from home and down to the USTA training center in Boca Raton, Fla.; that same year, after losing seven straight matches in the juniors to her older sister, Christina coolly decided she'd had enough. It was the 2007 Girls' 18s Clay Court Championships in Memphis: Christina was about to play Lauren in the quarterfinals.
"Dad, I'm winning this," Christina said beforehand, then beat her older sister in straight sets, for the first "and the last" time, Lauren said. She hasn't played Christina since.
"That was absolutely awful," Margarita said. "Lauren called after, she was hiding behind a tree or something and she said, 'I just can't face anyone. I am destroyed -- totally destroyed.' So I'm crying with Lauren and then Christina called and said, 'I won! I won!' "
Lauren dropped off the pro tennis path soon after, decided to play college tennis at Princeton -- and drove into Queens with her parents Thursday afternoon. "Since they took two different routes, now they love each other," Margarita says. "Lauren is right there; she's Christina's biggest fan."
It was nearing 5 o'clock as she spoke. The day schedule was already pressing into the night's,
"There's such a big difference between Christina and Sharapova -- just huge," Margarita said. "To have a big upset? The odds are not there. I just want her to play her best, and then I'm going to be thrilled. But if she doesn't, she's going to be very upset and it's going to be difficult to be in the same house. If she says, 'I blew it, I couldn't hit a ball, I was nervous,' she's going to be very hard on herself tonight. And we're going to be very quiet."
The match was scheduled for 7 p.m., but at 8:15 crews were still picking up the day session trash, the chair umpire was still shaking and squeezing the match tennis balls, a little girl was practicing
By 8:30 p.m., Margarita and her mother, husband, some coaches and friends -- 15 people in all -- had made it down to McHale's player box. The stadium video screens filled with highlights of Sharapova's win in the 2006 U.S. Open final; when the night's matchup first showed up on the board -- Christina McHale vs. Maria Sharapova -- everybody pointed. Lauren snapped a photo. At 8:39,
Then the stadium door opened, and out she walked first, racket bag slung over her right shoulder. At first, the place seemed smaller than Christina expected, but then, the seats hadn't filled in yet.
The two then began that strange and wonderful tennis tradition: warming up one's opponent. McHale noticed the seats filling and the place seemed to grow and it hit her:
It didn't last long, 74 minutes in all. Christina, a light-stepping baseliner, had one pure and thrilling moment early, when she stepped in and crushed Sharapova's 92-mph second serve with a forehand that, for about 20 seconds, shocked the crowd, broke Sharapova's serve to even things at 1-1 and made everyone wonder if the day's first big upset might trigger a second.
But Sharapova's groundstrokes were too heavy, too deep, too, too big: She won five of the next six games to take the first set, 6-2. Christina held to start the second and prompt one of those only-in-Ashe, only-at-night bellows -- "Go get it, Jersey!" -- and Sharapova seemed shaken: She double-faulted three times to give McHale break point and the chance at a 2-0 lead, dumped her first serve into the net and the second seemingly long. But Sharapova challenged, the ball was shown in; McHale sprayed her next forehand wide. She didn't win another game. The second set ended even worse, 6-1.
"It would've changed things a bit if I had gone up 2-0," Christina said. "She would've felt a little more pressure, I could've relaxed more, but ..."
McHale packed up her bag and walked off, signing one autograph, and the tennis world began to forget her: Sharapova walked onto the court, waved her arms high and blew kisses. She praised McHale's effort, talked about her "great amount of talent for the future."
Who knows? Christina McHale may well remain minor. Sharapova, all of 22, later remembered a similar match she played when much younger, against the legendary
But the loss showed how much work she had to do, and Sharapova went on to win three major titles. McHale echoed the idea. "That match makes me want to be here," she said afterward. "I want to be doing this. It's going to motivate me to work harder so I can come back and have a better match next time."
But ... who knows? Her dad had urged her to enjoy the moment, to take it all in, because there's no guarantee, of course, that she will ever be back. The sweetest thing for John McHale was hearing people, the strangers he'd always heard yelling for other tennis heroes, screaming his daughter's name Thursday night. Christina, though, keyed in on one voice cutting through the din, the one that never wavered or stopped. Her older sister had kept urging her on, kept her going. There was something big about that, too.