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Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open

American Hopeful Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Kim Shanley

Christina McHale, a rising young American star, was given a reality check last night by establishment tennis star Kim Clijsters at last night’s Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open in Mason, Ohio. The “reality check” came in the form of a 6-1, 6-1 thumping where McHale was outgunned and outplayed.

Back to the match in a moment. First, put Christina McHale on your watch list of young American players who may surprise a few establishment players at this year’s U.S. Open. The 18 year old McHale from Englewood, New Jersey has risen quickly through the ranks. After winning the prestigious 18’s singles Orange Bowl title, she hit the Pro circuit, making her Grand Slam debut in the 2009 Australia Open. She broke into the 200s ranking in March of 2010. This year she played in 5 tour events before this tournament, where she beat a former top ten ranked player (Nadia Petrova, now ranked #21) for the first time.

Click photo: Christina McHale faced the press after her one-sided
loss to Kim Clijsters.

Last night the stage was set for young Christina McHale to truly make the kind of media-grabbing breakthrough that Melanie Oudin made at last year’s U.S. Open. She was to play Kim Clijsters, reigning U.S. Open Champion as the featured match on the main stadium court.

The Cinderella Story Ends

Alas, McHale’s Cinderella story came to abrupt halt after the two players shook hands at the net. It’s impossible to assign the wicked step-sister role to someone as genuinely affable as Kim Clijsters. At the same time, Clijsters showed not a bit of mercy as she ran the American teenager all over the court in what was for her, a very business-like performance. The message was clear from the first point, “No breakthrough on my watch, young lady.” Clijsters’ firepower on her serve, where she only faced two breakpoints during the match, and the effortless power and precision of her groundstrokes were everywhere on display for McHale to see and learn how the big girls on the tour do it.

While clearly overmatched, the 5’ 7”, 108 pound teenager didn’t lose her composure. Going down 6-1 in the first set, McHale decided to go for her shots more aggressively in the second set. She fired off an ace at 112 mph, and unleashed some whipping, penetrating forehands that won her a few more points. Clijsters, however, was determined not to allow McHale breathing space, taking every short or neutral ball and firing pinpoint shots into either corner for McHale to attempt to run down. McHale’s footwork was very good when she had time to set-up for her shots, but Clijsters showed McHale she needs to improve her movement and defensive skills to stay in more points.

Click photo: McHale's strength is her groundstrokes but to compete at the top, she has to go for more.

While McHale has some nice power and placement on her first serve, her second serve, despite a budding kick action, simply lacks the pace to bother Clijsters, coming in around 80 mph. This made it that much easier for Clijsters to continue the youngster's lesson – and continue it she did. Clijsters won 75% of McHale’s second serve points and broke her serve five times in the match. In less than one hour, the lesson in top tier tennis had been fully applied – Kim Clijsters 6-1, 6-1 over Christina McHale.

The Next Step

Before we address a few instructional points from last night’s match, the first major take-away is that Christina McHale clearly has potential. Even at 18, she can fire first serves over 110 mph, and she has a lithe but strong frame that will grow much stronger in the next few years, giving her the chance to match up physically with the big stars on the tour.

Click photo: Christina spent a large part of the match running
from side to side.

She hits the ball cleanly from both wings, and she is refreshingly free of all tics, stalls, and awkwardness on her ball toss and service motion that seems to afflict so many of the women on the WTA tour. Moreover, in the press conference that followed such a resounding defeat, she showed the modesty necessary to absorb the lessons-to-be-learned administered to her by Clijsters. At the same time, she displayed the calm resolution of a young player determined to get to the top. So we’ll see. Next reality-check, the 2010 U.S.Open.


One-sided matches like this one bring the lessons-to-be-learned into stark relief:

  1. You need big weapons to play at the highest level. Whether you’re trying to move from the 3.5 to the 4.0 level, or, like Christina McHale, attempting to move from the 100’s to the top 50 or higher, you need weapons that will hurt the players at the new level you’re aiming for. As TennisOne’s Senior Editor Dave Smith (as well our other writers) has repeatedly stressed, what gives you success at a lower level of play will often be what leads to failure at a higher level. Consistency from the ground, which has been the primary vehicle for success thus far for Christina McHale, simply is not enough to win consistently against top top 20 players.
  1. Work on your weaknesses. All players, but particularly recreational players, have a tendency to practice what they’re good at. Working on the weak parts of your game is often considered to closely resemble “work,” something we believe we’re escaping from by “playing” tennis. On the other hand, losing badly, as Christina McHale did, in part because of the weakness of her second serve, is no fun at all. So the operative word is “work,” work on your weaknesses as well as your strengths.
  1. Begin with end in mind. In his famous book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey’s 2nd habit says that we must begin with the end in mind. Meaning, we need to apply ourselves to any endeavor keeping the end-goal always uppermost in our minds. If you’re a 3.5 player with the goal of playing at a 4.5 level, you must build your skills and fitness to compete at that level and not become complacent with skills that deliver wins at the 3.5 or 4.0 level. If you don’t have a goal for your tennis game, well, that’s fine. But according to Covey (and other performance experts), you won’t be among the most effective people in your sport. And where’s the fun in that?

Christina McHale seems to have absorbed all these take-aways from her match last night with Kim Clijsters. It will be interesting to see how she applies them.

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