NEW YORK -- It wasn't until after the last moment of the match, when her opponent sent a hard forehand into the net, that Christina McHale could relax. The 19-year-old from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., sat in her chair, looked at a cheering crowd of fans calling her name, and finally smiled.
It took three arduous sets against Aleksandra Wozniak, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-4, but McHale was finally through to the second round of the U.S. Open. She was in front of family and friends, who had spaced themselves in little pockets around Court 17.
"I enjoyed it today," McHale said Monday night. "I'm happy I pulled through."
She was just a little girl when she walked past the grounds of the Australian Open more than a decade ago. Her father, John, who works in finance, was stationed in Hong Kong for five years and they traveled when they could. She learned to play there, following in the footsteps of her sister Lauren, who now plays for North Carolina.
At the time there was no way to know how the experience would shape McHale, but her father couldn't help but think as he watched her Monday night how far she has come from the shadow of a Melbourne stadium.
She has been a wild card at the U.S. Open twice, and had a 1-2 record here after reaching the second round in 2009. This year, however, has been a breakthrough for McHale. Her No. 55 ranking was built on wins such as the one over top-ranked Caroline Wozniaki in Cincinnati, becoming the youngest American to beat a No. 1 opponent.
The U.S. Open has traditionally been a supportive environment for Americans playing late-night matches. Todd Martin, Venus Williams and James Blake could always count on an enthusiastic audience, with a few Heinekens adjusting the crowd's volume.
McHale was supposed to have a late-afternoon match as the third one slated for Court 17, but a four-setter won by Tommy Haas delayed the start until nearly dark.
McHale exhibited a steeliness that seemed to contradict the stereotype of the pink she wore; there was no softness as she fought back from a loss in the second-set tiebreak. This was despite the fact that No. 134 Wozniak won 69 percent of her first serves compared to 54 percent for McHale.
"The close ones sometimes feel better than winning easily," McHale said.
McHale had the crowd, but Wozniak had a big, looping forehand that gave McHale trouble from the start. She lost the first eight points of the third set before settling down.
"It just felt like out of my control, kind of, like the points were going fast, out of my control," McHale said. She pulled it back in, though, and in the second round will face No. 9 Marion Bartoli.
It will be a tough match to win, but not impossible.
Now that McHale has trained with Patrick McEnroe and the USTA since February, her game has taken off. The grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center offer a home-town advantage. She can sleep at home, and come to work at a place familiar from years of visits and months of training.
John McHale said he and his wife had no idea how good their daughters had become when they returned from Hong Kong. Christine was 8, and a year later won the first tournament she ever entered, a 10-and-under event. The little girl who said "I want to play too!" soon got better than her older sister, who remains a solid hitting partner.
Those years in Asia were the best, John said, drawing the family together, honing a sense of competitiveness and instilling his daughters with a sense of belonging, no matter where they go in the world. It's something Christina drew on when, for example, she won her first-round match at Wimbledon this summer.
And maybe those qualities will help her some other night, on a larger stage at the U.S. Open.