Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens spend time on an old war plane.
© Kent Horner
By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
CARLSBAD, Calif. - Putting the soft-spoken Christina McHale together with extroverted Sloane Stephens on a famous navy carrier to play a tennis exhibition is a fine idea. It’s just too bad that the two young women didn’t come across enough single sailors.
"We were joking, and I don’t know who brought it up that we would be looking for future husbands there, but they were all married," the 20-year-old McHale said with a laugh. "They didn’t bring the bachelors."
Before they arrived on the ship, the talkative Stephens decided to interview McHale in the car on the way over and even managed to get her usually quiet friend to elaborate.
"It was such a cool experience and my first time in a ship like that, and to do it with Sloane made it really cool," McHale said. "She has a great personality. She’s hysterical."
McHale and Stephens hit and played super tiebreaker on a mini court set up on the USS Midway, the longest-serving U.S. Navy carrier of the 20th century. They played mixed doubles with Herb Zoehrer, a retired U.S. Navy captain, and Scott McGaugh, the USS Midway marketing director.
McHale’s grandfather served in the navy during World War II as a machine gunner, so it made her visit even more special.
"It was a really nice time," McHale said afterwards. "There were a lot of families there, and we got to sit in one of the old war planes. It was pretty cool."
Ranked No. 27, McHale is seeded at the Mercury Insurance Open for the first time. Without a slew of experienced top-10 players around, she and the other young Americans have a good chance to go far this week.
McHale, who reached the third round of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, considers her recent European swing a step forward. She is still lacking experience on clay and grass, so to pick up some key wins during the three-month period and see a rise in her ranking was heartening.
And now, after having to miss last week’s tournament at Stanford due to a sinus infection, she’s smiling wide, as she is back on familiar territory.
"It feels good, and I love being on the hard courts and especially being in the U.S. I’m happy," she said.
She looked quite pleased in a prototypical McHale-type win over Australian Jarmila Gajdosova, 7-6 (5), 7-5, that was full of end-to-end sprints, deep returns, hard groundstrokes and generally heady play. She wasn’t overly anxious and bided her time until she could get a reasonable ball that she could take a big swing at, and then she delivered. Nothing came very easy, but she earned every point.
"She played really well, and it was hard to read her serve," McHale said. "All the games were really close, and it was tough. My first rounds are always tough."
Last year at this time, the New Jersey resident had already begun to break out, but she was not the player she is today -- one who rarely loses to players ranked below her and who has become more adept at managing her matches. Then, she was ranked No. 66 and won two rounds before she was crushed by eventual champion Agnieszka Radwanska. This year, she has a chance to go much further, and there isn’t a player in the draw whom she can’t at least push.
"Every time I step on the court, I want to win," she said.
While the Mercury Insurance Open is packed full of gritty Americans, it also contains a determined 20-year-old from Britain, the cheery Heather Watson, who trained in Florida as a junior and has familiarity with U.S. hard courts.
On Tuesday, she bested Greece’s Eleni Daniilidou, 6-3, 6-3. She has a similar type of game to that of McHale, relying on her movement, her heart and her savvy, while also being rock solid.
On Monday, Watson became Britain’s highest-ranked woman for the first time at No. 71. She said that she received a surge of confidence boost after winning two rounds in London.
"The run at Wimbledon has given me a big boost because I hadn’t won a match in juniors or semis in singles," she said. I’m just keeping the train rolling."
Watson ended up losing in the third round to eventual finalist Agnieszka Radwanska, the same woman who schooled McHale last year. While Watson usually seems to be in good spirits, she did not perk up when discussing the loss. She expects more out of herself, and during this Emirates Airline US Open Series, she’ll be a player to keep an eye on.
"I was very disappointed," she said. "I didn’t play my best. Obviously, Aggie was playing very well. But I didn’t give her enough of a challenge. I wasn't making any balls. I think I got a bit nervous.
"Being British No. 1 has always been one of my goals, and now that I have achieved it, I just want to keep climbing the rankings and set new, tougher goals and targets and keep improving."