Not everyone is cut out for a life on the WTA Tour. The constant travel and culture shocks can leave even the most worldly talent feeling – quite literally – upside down.
For unseeded American Christina McHale, voyaging to the farthest reaches of the Earth is nothing new. Born in Teaneck, N.J., McHale spent much of her formative years living in Hong Kong, one of the earliest homes she can remember, and where her love of the game first took root.
“I have such great memories from my early childhood there, and it’s where I first started to play tennis,” McHale reminisced in an interview with The Tennis Island.
“It was amazing to go back there for the tournament last September and revisit all of the spots my family and I used to go. I went back to the condo building where I first started playing, and it brought back such clear memories.”
The homecoming proved bittersweet for the World No. 53, who suffered a heartbreaking three-set loss to Francesca Schiavone, but it was a positive experience all the same for the American, who retains a knowledge of Mandarin Chinese that will undoubtedly continue to come in handy on a circuit quickly expanding in Asia.
“I really enjoy playing in China and the fans there are so supportive. It’s great that there are so many new events in China.”
Unconventional upbringing aside, McHale isn’t too different from your average American; born of Cuban and Irish-American parents, the 22-year-old is fluent in Spanish, even bringing along an original-language copy of Gabriel García Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), to Australia.
“Being able to speak Spanish has definitely been really helpful for me on the Tour,” McHale said. “It makes traveling to Hispanic countries for tournaments a lot easier, and I love being able to interact with my fans there. Also, it makes it easier to communicate with the other Spanish-speaking players!”
She has fond memories of playing in Acapulco last year, where she reached her first WTA Tour final and left a major impression on its people.
“ESPN Deportes asked me onto a set for an interview after one of my matches and were really surprised when I could speak Spanish! It was great to be able to talk to the media in their first language and I think the fans liked it too.”
It was the site of one of her career’s highest highs, but also a rare bright spot in what has been a difficult two seasons for the former Top 30 player. A fast-rising star only a few years ago, McHale first served notice when she up-ended then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Cincinnati. An all-around player, the American lacks an eye-catching weapon, but is far from an easy out.
“My strengths on court are my movement and my consistency,” she said. “I think I could improve my serve a bit for this upcoming season.”
That straight-sets victory preceded a run to the third round of the US Open, where she took out No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli before losing an entertaining two-setter to Maria Kirilenko.
The American was off and running. Her2012 was shaping up to be a career-best season, and she reached the third round of the first three major tournaments and earning a coveted berth on the US Olympic team.
“Being a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 has definitely been the most memorable moment of my career so far,” she said. “It was the coolest thing I have been a part of and something that I’m really proud of. I will never forget when I met other amazing athletes, like Ryan Lochte!”
It was then, however, that things would take an unfortunate turn. McHale was diagnosed with mononucleosis, a virus she struggled with until November. Losing precious momentum and off-season training time, she was off her game for much of the 2013 season, falling to No. 70 from a career high of No. 24 a year prior.
Undaunted, the American spent much of last year rebuilding her ranking and confidence, looking more like her former self with a run to the semifinals of Seoul. Coming into 2015, McHale was ready to do some damage.
“I did my off season training in Boca Raton at the USTA facility and it was very tough! We had lots of intense fitness and tennis sessions but it was nice to be able to do it in a group with some of the other American girls. “
Shoulder pain interrupted what should have been a cracking start to the season. Truncated practice ahead of Brisbane left her vulnerable to an on-song Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, and more discomfort forced her to retire a set down to fellow American Alison Riske in Hobart. Working with WTA physios, McHale is confident in her chances to play well where it matters in Melbourne.
“I’m just going to go out there and try to produce my best tennis,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to stepping on court.”
Opening against qualifier Stephanie Foretz, McHale could play a seed as early as the second round in No. 17 Carla Suarez Navarro, but the American relishes the challenge.
“I have never played Stephanie before, but I know she is a very experienced player and anyone who comes through qualifying is feeling good.”
Through a cautious beginning to 2015, McHale has attacked one thing with gusto: social media. Following a recent partnership with PR manager Katie Spellman, she opened an Instagram account in time for the New Year, and already has 17,000 followers on Twitter.
“I really enjoy using social media and I was very excited to start my new Instagram account.”
Armed with a goal to win her first WTA title, the New Jersey native/international tennis star is putting health first this season, as she continues her road back to the top of women’s tennis.
“At the end of this year, I hope to have improved my overall game and be healthy!”