AP NEWS

Englewood Cliffs’ Christina McHale rallies to win 1st WTA singles title

September 18, 2016

Night after night, Lauren McHale put her head on the pillow and went to sleep, even though she knew her sister Christina was playing a professional tennis match half a world away. Over in Japan, Christina kept winning. Here in the U.S., Lauren kept sleeping.

“I’m superstitious,” Lauren said in a phone call from California on Sunday, just hours after waking up to the news that her younger sister Christina had finally broken through to win her first singles title on the WTA tour.

“Since the beginning of the first round, I’ve been sleeping while she’s been playing. If I woke up for a minute, I’d check the score, but I’d go back to sleep, then I’d wake up to her text saying she’d won. When I got to California, I was able to watch more with the time change, but I was too superstitious so I didn’t want to check.”

Finally, it was her fiancé (tennis pro Ryan Harrison) who gave her the ultimate good news, relaying Christina’s 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Katerina Siniaova of the Czech Republic. Playing in the second final of her career, the 24-year-old native of Englewood Cliffs capped off a week that saw her win five different matches in three sets, a testament to her fitness regimen and mental endurance.

“I’m very happy for Christina and extremely proud,” her father John said in a text message to The Record. “She never gives up. Five matches, all three sets. Pretty tough.”

McHale needed every bit of that toughness in the overnight hours, when she lost the first set and fell behind in the second set, 4-2. But eight straight victorious games later, she was in control.

“She is so fit right now,” Lauren said. “She’s just the hardest worker I know on and off the court. She’ll do whatever it takes to win. She’s worked so hard on so many different things in her game, and has worked hard to be more resilient, to stick with it when she gets nervous or is struggling. She used to go back to her old ways. Now, she is just so tough.”

When it was over, the No. 7 seed was holding a trophy high atop her head, a smile stretching across her face.

“I don’t even want to put my trophy down – I just want to hold it all the time,” McHale told the Associated Press. “I’ve been coming to this tournament for a few years now and I really love it here.” Later, she put this out on Twitter: “It was worth the wait. Thanks so much for an incredible week Tokyo and thanks for all the support!”

Accustomed to traveling the tennis circuit with her mom, Margarita, Christina was in Tokyo on her own, though her mother is joining her for the next stop on the Asian tour. The family made sure to share some FaceTime after the big win.

“We were so excited and so happy,” Lauren said. “I wanted to talk to the champion.”

Christina has long enjoyed a great relationship with Asian fans – she and her family lived in China when the girls were young, while John worked there. “It’s so far away, but it does feel like home to us,” Lauren said.

But the player is just as popular with her peers, so many of whom took to social media to congratulate her on the breakthrough win. From Justin Gimelstob (who tweeted “Congrats @ChristinaMcHale on your 1st career @WTA singles title. Awesome effort #JerseyStrong”) to fellow pro players including Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Coco Vandewegh, Monica Puig, Irina Falconi, and Renae Stubbs, there was a wave of support for McHale’s win.

“Just so happy for her,” Lauren said. “She was excited, but exhausted too. She’s flying out tomorrow to her next tournament, so she has no time to relax. But that’s OK.” E-mail: sullivan@northjersey.com