By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
STUTTGART, Germany - In the spring of 2010, Christina McHale turned 18 and was getting ready to graduate from high school.
Her tennis career was going extremely well, as she played her first career Fed Cup match in February, in April reached the round of 16 in Charleston on the WTA Tour and then won a USTA Wild Card Playoff tournament to earn her first career main-draw entry into Roland Garros.
Along with her family and her coaches, she was also thinking about her future. Should she turn professional? Or should she maintain her amateur status (declining all prize money) to be eligible to play college tennis at some point?
She was thinking she would take a year off after high school graduation and maintain her amateur status to give herself the option of playing college tennis, depending on her results on the WTA Tour.
But after playing her first-round match at Roland Garros, losing to fellow American Varvara Lepchenko, she changed her mind. Playing professional tennis was what she wanted to do.
Now a year later, McHale could not be happier with her choice, as her tennis career is surging, including a stretch the past two months in which she earned some of her best results on the WTA Tour.
She reached a career-high ranking of No. 82 in the world this week to become the fifth-highest ranked American woman. She is also now preparing to face Germany this weekend as part of the U.S. Fed Cup Team in the World Group Playoffs in Stuttgart.
"It was definitely a really big decision (to turn professional). My whole family and coaches were involved in it," McHale, who turns 19 in May, said. "This is something I have always wanted to do, so I thought I might as well be 100 percent committed to it.
"It was just when it felt right," she added of the timing of her decision last year. "When I went (to the French Open), I didn’t go there with the intention to turn pro. It was just after the tournament, we decided to. My parents wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do, and they would support my decision. They were excited for me. It changed the fact that I can’t accept a college scholarship now, but everything else stayed the same."
McHale is now coming off a two-month stretch in which she reached the third round in Indian Wells, which included defeating two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in two tiebreaks, in her second-round match.
She topped that a few weeks later when she reached the quarterfinals in Charleston, defeating Alisa Kleybanova and Daniela Hantuchova along the way. Then she received a call from U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez inviting her to be a member of her team against Germany, to which McHale immediately accepted.
McHale will also likely be the U.S. team’s No. 2 singles player against Germany as the U.S. looks to keep its spot in the World Group for 2012.
"For Christina to have done so well the past few months and break into the top 100, I think is huge," Fernandez said of McHale’s development and selecting her for the team.
McHale, a native of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., made a coaching change in early 2011, deciding to train at the USTA National Training Center - East, located at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., and close to her home.
She had been splitting her training time between the USTA Training Center Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., and at a club in New Jersey but decided to just remain close to home whenever she is not at a tournament. She now works with a variety of USTA coaches, including Patrick McEnroe, general manager of USTA Player Development.
"I wanted to be home more, and they have a really good set-up. I just went there to practice for a few days when I was home and it felt right," McHale said of the Training Center East. "Everything just feels good now, to be able to be home and have good training there."
The change coincided with her surge in success this year, which she attributes to the new coaching, her increased strength and her gain in match experience and playing pressure moments on the WTA Tour.
"Having different perspectives helps and to just talk about what they think and come up with the best improvements to make to my game," she said of the benefits for working with different coaches. "There is room for improvement in every aspect of my game. One of the big things I am working on now is getting stronger fitness-wise.
"I have been playing a lot more matches at this level, and I am getting more experience in the tighter moments and what to do," she added of reasons for her growing success. "I think I am stronger than I was a year ago, so that has helped a lot. In terms of how I am playing, I am not doing anything different, but my shots are more powerful now because I have gotten stronger and I am getting more match play at this level."
Her win over Kuznetsova was her biggest win in terms of the ranking and success of her opponent and was up there with her victory over Polona Hercog in the first round of the 2009 US Open (for her first Grand Slam main-draw win) as the most important wins of her young career.
"They were different wins," McHale said of Indian Wells and the US Open. "Ranking-wise, the player-wise, Kuznetsova was the biggest win I had. It was really close. I just played my game and went after my shots, whereas sometimes in matches against bigger players, I would be a little tentative, but I was not in that match. I was nervous, but I still went for my shots at the close moments."
With her ranking now inside the top 100, McHale is on track to play the main draw of all four Grand Slams in a calendar year for the first time in her career. She won a USTA Wild Card Playoff again to gain entry into the 2011 Australian Open and will gain direct entry into the main draws of the French Open and Wimbledon, which will be her first at the All England Club.
Her mother, Margarita, travels with her to tournaments with her father, John, frequently traveling for work and her older sister Lauren away at college at the University of North Carolina (where she is on the varsity tennis team.). It was Margarita who first introduced both Christina and Lauren to tennis. She started playing in New Jersey with some other mothers when Lauren was a baby.
She kept playing when the family moved to Hong Kong a few years later for John’s job in international finance (where they stayed for six years) and started letting a four-year-old Christina and six-year-old Lauren hit a few balls. The rest is history.
For McHale, she is happy to see her ranking continue to improve, although she tries not to get too carried away with it, especially since she knows it can slide a bit in the opposite direction, as well, whenever she is defending points in a tournament.
But for now, it is great satisfaction for her hard work.
"It definitely is nice because I have been working really hard," she said. "I try not to think about it too much because if it goes the other way a little bit, then I won’t be upset. (But) everything seems to be in a good place right now."