Christina McHale can no longer fly under the radar.
Though she's the fourth-highest ranked American woman, behind Serena and Venus Williams and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, McHale was a relative unknown in the tennis world. But that changed Wednesday with her 6-4, 7-5 second-round win over current world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
"I'm really happy about it," she said. "It was a huge relief and excitement when I won that last point."
Ranked No. 76, McHale dictated the points against a struggling Wozniacki, but as the 19-year-old learned at the French Open in May, closing out an upset is never easy. In Paris, McHale led No. 38 Sara Errani of Italy 5-0 in the third set but wound up losing the match 6-7, 6-2, 9-7. But there were no signs of those nerves this time around as McHale stuck to her aggressive game plan until the end.
"I just tried to focus on my service games," she said. "I really didn't think about the score too much, and I think that helped me to just stay calm."
While the win is by far the best of McHale's young career, she's already moved on to her next challenge. "For sure it helps confidence-wise, but I think I have to start getting ready for tomorrow's match. I'll enjoy it tonight, but I have to get ready for the next one." Thursday she takes on No. 27 Nadia Petrova, who McHale beat at this tournament exactly one year ago.
McHale grew up in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., only a deep lob away from the USTA Training Center in Flushing Meadows, her training base since February. The site also hosts the U.S. Open where McHale will compete in less than two weeks. Despite her northeastern roots, it was in Hong Kong where a 4-year-old McHale first picked up a racket. (Her father's finance job had taken the family there.) Four years later, the McHales moved back to America, and she has worked closely with the USTA since.
She's currently coached by USTA player development chief Patrick McEnroe, along with Jay Gooding and Jorge Todero, who watched her breakthrough win from the stands. There's no doubt that all three coaches, as well as plenty of friends and family, will be there to cheer on the hometown girl at the upcoming U.S. Open.
McHale started making the annual trip to Flushing Meadows for the local Grand Slam almost 10 years ago. She was a spectator then, but it didn't take long for her to make the leap to junior competition.
"We went every year to watch it," she said. "The first time I played in the U.S. Open juniors was when I was 14, and since then, we've been going every year."
And each time, McHale's world ranking has seen improvement. At the end of 2007, she sat at No. 712. This year she reached a career high of No. 64.
"I've been putting in a lot of work on the practice court and with fitness," she said when asked what has helped her break out in 2011. "I'm happy where I'm training right now, so I think it's a little bit of everything."
With her win over Wozniacki, any trace of anonymity the New Jersey teen may have enjoyed has likely flown right out the window, but don't expect that to bother the newest star of American tennis.
"I don't mind. I'm just continuing to practice hard and compete hard in matches," she said of her impending stardom. "I'm not too focused on [the fame] part too much. I just focus on my tennis."
With that, she left to respond to the myriad texts and calls she admitted to receiving after her win. We'll catch up with McHale again next week as she competes in her last warm-up tournament before heading to New York for the U.S. Open.