Wednesday August 31st, 2011

Christina McHale is into the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. (EPA/Landov)

Christina McHale scored the biggest victory of her career Wednesday at the U.S. Open, ousting No. 8 Marion Bartoli 7-6 (2), 6-2 to advance to the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. But notching a win is one thing. Gaining respect is another.

Top players are reluctant to credit their opponents when they lose, often concocting clichéd answers that sound a little something like this: "Yeah, she played well. But I didn't bring my A-game today. In fact, it was more my D-game. A 12-year-old could have beaten me today."

So it is high praise indeed that Bartoli, in the midst of a strong year that has included appearances in the French Open semifinals, the Wimbledon quarterfinals and the finals of two WTA Premier events (Indian Wells and Stanford), was quick to compliment the 19-year-old American after the match. Bartoli, never one to mince words or hold back, was disappointed but surprisingly at peace with the loss.

"Honestly, she deserved the win," Bartoli said. "She played so well. Not much to regret. She came out and played the perfect match. She didn't miss barely a ball and she was moving so well. I found I had to hit five or six winners to win a point. All credit to her. I didn't play a poor match. ... She just played better than me."

McHale, the youngest player in the top 100 (she's 55th), defended valiantly and drove Bartoli nuts with her ability to retrieve. The performance also was notable for how effectively she was able to close out the match.

Three months ago at the French Open, McHale squandered a 5-0 lead in the third set and lost to Sara Errani in the first round. McHale said after the match that she had "panicked," but her maturation since then has been evident. At Wimbledon, she rallied from a set down and won the third set 8-6 in an upset of No. 28 Ekaterina Makarova. On Wednesday, McHale won the first five points of the first-set tiebreaker to take control, and she closed out the match with an ace to earn a third-round clash against No. 25 Maria Kirilenko.

"If she can play every single match like that, she will be very soon, very high [in the rankings]," Bartoli said.

"If" is the operative word as folks scramble to anoint the shy New Jersey native "The Future of American Tennis." While McHale has had a standout summer, beating No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova, she lacks any major weapons. Her serve and groundstrokes are solid but not overpowering. She'll have to rely heavily on her movement and consistency to build points and create openings for herself. But she has no glaring weaknesses, and if she can improve all aspects of her game by a few notches, she could be a solid top-25 player for years to come.

McHale's breakthrough was just part of a promising day for young U.S. women. Irina Falconi, a 21-year-old ranked No. 79, toppled 14th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 to double her number of career victories at majors. Earlier in the day,  Madison Keys, 16, impressed in a three-set loss to No. 27 Lucie Safarova. Meanwhile, on Thursday, 18-year-old Sloane Stephens will face No. 23 Shahar Peer in a bid to join McHale in the third round. "There's a lot of American players, young American players, all kind of pushing each other," McHale said. "It's exciting."

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