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Sunday, February 26, 2012
Updated: February 27, 2:22 PM ET
Mature McHale making her move

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

When it came to keeping tabs on a recent class of junior girls on the rise, the American tennis community wasn't exactly focused on Christina McHale.

Instead, there was an eye out for Melanie Oudin, specifically after she surprised all by reaching the 2009 U.S. Open main draw quarterfinals as a 17-year-old. And notice was paid to Coco Vandeweghe, not only because she won the 2008 U.S. Open junior girls' title, but because of her family's sporting background: Grandpa Ernie and uncle Kiki were well-known basketball stars, while mom Tauna was an Olympic swimmer.

A shy teen, McHale wasn't exactly a nonentity in the juniors, but she didn't court that much attention. In 2009, she won the USTA 18's title in singles and doubles as well as the Easter Bowl 18s and Australian Open junior girls' doubles title.

So where are they now?

Oudin, 20, is No. 208 in the rankings and is dependent on wild cards -- she received one into the Memphis main draw and lost to Stephanie Foretz Gacon 6-2, 6-3 in the first round -- or qualifying to get into tour main draw events.

Vandeweghe, 20, ranks No. 156 and is also trying to find her way back up the ranking ladder. She lost her first-round match to Roberta Vinci 7-5, 7-5 at Monterrey last week.

McHale, 19, is at a career high ranking of No. 34 and is the second-highest-ranked American player behind Serena Williams at No. 11. She started the 2011 season ranked No. 115 and by season's end had cracked the top 50, closing out the year at No. 42.

"For me it's actually felt like I'm moving at a slow and steady pace," said McHale, describing her ranking progression. "It hasn't felt like it's come too soon or anything for me. It's just been a process. I just want to keep going."

Christina McHale
Christina McHale appears to have all the makeup to be a longtime star on the WTA Tour.

One of her most notable moments was upsetting No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 7-5 in the second round at Cincinnati last summer.

This year, McHale is continuing her upward climb on the tour. Most recently, she reached the quarterfinals of the Qatar Total Open in Doha, where she lost to Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 6-1. But she showed some gumption until that point, pulling out a 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 win over 12th seed Peng Shuai of China, a match she led 5-0 in the first set and then had to fight through three sets to win. She also outlasted Israeli Shahar Peer 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the third round.

McHale knows that the win over Peng was a perfect example of the improvements in her game and mentality.

"I think maybe last year without the experience I have now I might have lost the second set easy," McHale said. "Now I know how to get right back to business and didn't let it affect me so much.

"Part of it is maturity and experience, but I'm definitely more fit," she added. "Compared to last year I feel more fit and that I can last another two sets whereas last year I might have been tired already."

McHale also reached the third round of the Australian Open -- her second third-round result at a Grand Slam after reaching that round at the U.S. Open last September.

And she shined in early February when she played the No. 2 spot behind Serena Williams, winning her first two Fed Cup singles matches. She beat Belarusian Anastasiya Yakimova 6-0, 6-4 to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead and then won the meaningless fourth match 6-0, 6-1 over Darya Kustova to help the U.S. to a 5-0 win.

"It was the first time I met Serena, and I only briefly had met Venus before," McHale said. "It was a huge honor for me to be on the team. I was surprised at how like down-to-earth they were that week. They were really nice and supportive. It was a fun week."

U.S. Fed Cup veteran Liezel Huber, who celebrated her 12th wedding anniversary by winning the second of three consecutive doubles title this year with Lisa Raymond at the Qatar Total Open, assessed McHale's Fed Cup performance.

"Christina still has a lot to mature in her game, to compete day-in and day-out with the Azarenkas, the Radwanskas and so on, but you know now Christina is not going to think it's impossible to win these matches," Huber said. "She's had great wins. She's definitely gonna be on the [Fed Cup] team forever, because I think she's just a very disciplined, driven individual."

Determination and talent isn't the only asset that makes McHale a perfect fit for the vagabond player lifestyle. She's comfortable with the travel and different cultures she encounters on the tour, something she acquired from her expat childhood.

A native -- and current resident -- of New Jersey, McHale didn't come by her passion for tennis in the United States. Rather, it was as a youngster in Hong Kong where her father, a finance specialist, was posted by his company. She lived there between the ages of 3 and 8 and still speaks a smattering of Mandarin.

"I loved it there, and that's where I started to play tennis," she said. "My sister [Lauren, who plays tennis for the University of North Carolina] and I -- we have really good memories of being there. In our apartment complex there were tennis courts downstairs and it was kind of the thing to do after school. All the little kids would go and play in the group."

During their Hong Kong years, the McHale sisters pursued tennis and swimming, and kept to those sports when they returned to New Jersey in 2000. When Christina was 12, she decided to stick with her racket and put away her bathing suit.

By 15, she left home to train at the United States Tennis Association Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., but after one year she weighed the sacrifice, and while the training was incomparable, she wanted to go home. Since that time she has trained with USTA coaches at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the home of the U.S. Open, which is a 25-minute drive from her Englewood Cliff, N.J., home.

If things fall into place, McHale, who withdrew from last week's Dubai tournament to rest a sore shoulder, could be in line to be seeded at the upcoming BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. There are 32 seeds at the tournament, and with Serena Williams not playing there, and always the possibility that some players will pull out, she could make the seeding cut.

And there could be another new experience awaiting McHale in the summer: If she keeps her status as the No. 2-ranked American, she could be looking at a first trip to the Olympics.

But she doesn't want to think ahead that far.

"People ask me what I think my chances are of getting in [to the Olympics]," she said. "I don't really want to look at that at all until it comes out. I don't want to get my hopes up because they haven't decided until June. It's a long time away. Things can change."