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Monday, February 6, 2012
McHale shows off rapidly improving game

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Fed Cup, where nightmare scenarios often morph into dream sequences and some of the best teams -- and biggest names -- aren't even in the big leagues, also known in tennis as the World Group.

Some people get all bent out of shape about things like that and decry the competition. But I kind of get a kick out of Fed Cup, warts and all. And, let's face it, isn't it better to have a credible, official major international women's team competition than to forget about the whole thing and settle for the sun rising and setting on single-elimination tournament tennis?

I mean, say the words "World Cup" and everyone on earth, including formerly indifferent Americans now eager to show their street cred as soccer-savvy "world citizens," goes ga-ga. Say the words "World Group" or "Fed Cup" and everybody yawns or asks, "How much did FedEx have to pay to get it named that?"

It's too bad because the very nature of the multimatch competition involving as many as four players from each team leaves you with lots of plot lines. For example, how can Serena William be upstaged at an event where she doesn't lose a match and drops just one set?

That's what happened Sunday in Worcester, Mass., where what seemed to be a nightmare Fed Cup tie against Belarus, featuring Australian Open champ and new World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, turned into one of those omnipotence dreams when Azarenka, citing a back injury, excused herself from the competition.

As a result, the U.S. won in a 5-0 blowout and needs just one more win in April to get back into the elite World Group. Serena, who says she's still nursing a tender ankle, ducked a potentially stiff challenge in Azarenka and won both her matches, dropping just one set (to world No. 65 Anastasia Yakimova).

But that was one more set than Serena's teammate Christina McHale lost in a wonderful performance that will do wonders for her confidence and pride. McHale is a 19-year-old from New Jersey (I don't know which exit), and, at the tender age of 17, she was tossed to the wolves in her Fed Cup debut against France. She lost in her singles debut to Pauline Parmentier of France, although the U.S. did win that away tie.

A little more than a year later, she played two singles against a strong German squad in Stuttgart. She lost to top-10-er Andrea Petkovic and to Sabine Lisicki. She was 0-3 in singles and had yet to win a set.

McHale finally got to play at home this weekend. Her increased maturity and rapidly improving game were the main components in a pair of wins in which she gave up just five games and won two sets at love. Not bad for a young lady who went to sleep on the eve of the tie thinking she would have to face the best woman player on the planet at the moment, Azarenka.

But, if you understand anything about Davis or Fed cup play, you know the old switcheroo can be devastating. In the course of mere moments, or however long it took for McHale to get the news about Azarenka pulling out, she went from having no pressure (as well as a game plan and a mindset) to being a favorite and having to scramble to figure out how to meet the Yakimova challenge.

"I didn't really try to think about it too much," she told the media after the win. "I mean, I still had to play a tough opponent. I just kept my same routines and my same mentality."

McHale came through skillfully, as she did in her second match, against No. 604 (do they really go that low?) Darya Kustova. Although McHale's Fed Cup singles record is still below .500 (2-3), her performance and enthusiasm for the competition make her the cornerstone of the American Fed Cup future. She earned the right to be seen that way this weekend.