Friday September 4th, 2009

NEW YORK -- The first time she heard the news, 17-year-old Christina McHale thought there had to be some mistake. The night match? Arthur Ashe Stadium? She was able to calm herself some, but each time a new text popped in, each time someone mentioned it, she felt this small vibration again, a buzz in the pit of her gut. Then Wednesday turned to Thursday morning, 9 a.m., and her eyes opened in her New Jersey bedroom, just a 25-minute drive from the 2009 U.S. Open, and McHale asked herself again, just to be sure, Am I actually playing Sharapova tonight on Ashe? Or was that a dream?

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 John and his wife, Margarita, would pack their daughters, Christina and Lauren, two years older, into the car, make the drive over the George Washington and Triborough Bridges, onto the bumpy Grand Central Parkway into Flushing Meadows. They'd come for the day, always sitting way up top in the Ashe nosebleeds, and leave by 6 p.m. or so to get home in time for a quick bite before catching the night matches on TV.

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," Maria Sharapova says. "You say it feels amazing, but I don't think words can really describe it."

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, Polona Hercog, to set up Thursday's meeting with the former No. 1 Sharapova -- who won Wimbledon at her age, who is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, who, despite shoulder troubles and a shaky, revamped serve and a No. 29 ranking, remains one of the game's fiercest competitors.

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, James Blake hadn't even started beating Olivier Rochus on Ashe yet; it looked like Christina wouldn't even have time to practice on the court. She'd be walking out, into the biggest match of her life, cold.

"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 America the Beautiful. Christina was in the locker room, eyeing Sharapova, ignored by Sharapova, waiting. "It was kind of intimidating," Christina said. "She was all in a zone, and I was, like, What do I do?"

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, Mary Jo Fernandez interviewed Christina on the video screen, from the hallway below, and everyone in her box applauded.

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. OK, she thought. It doesn't look that bad. Sharapova trailed behind, imperious and towering, the silver in her disco headband and dress gleaming under the lights. A fan barked, "I guess she's trying out for that part on The Jetsons."

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: Wow. Sharapova pointed skyward, asking for a lob, but McHale was so nervous that her offering bounced five feet short. In Sharapova's box only three seats were filled: trainer, agent, coach.

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. Hey, if Melanie Oudin can do it to Dementieva ...

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 Monica Seles. "First two games I thought I played the best tennis in my life. I think I only won one of those and didn't win a game after that," Sharapova said. "I came off the court, I remember telling my parents, 'I thought I played so well and the score line is just horrible. Where do I go from here?' "

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.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.