By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Christina McHale is the definition of a workhorse, so much so that she had to think about how much time she took off on Christmas Eve day, usually a day that most non-retail workers take off. But not the 19-year-old.
"I did do fitness that day," she said. "You have to do it to be ready. Getting stronger was important to be able to play with these girls."
On Monday, McHale upset 24th seed Lucie Safarova, 6-2, 6-4, in the first round of the Australian Open. A day later, fellow young Americans Vania King, Jamie Hampton and Sloane Stephens also scored wins, with King besting Kateryna Bondarenko, 7-6 (3), 6-3, Hampton taking down Mandy Minella, 6-1, 6-1, and teenager Sloane Stephens besting Silvia Soler-Espinosa, 6-4, 6-2.
New Jersey resident McHale did take Christmas Day off but was right back to work at the USTA Training Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. (the site of the US Open) the next day. She and fellow pros Varvara Lepchenko and Gail Brodsky spent the off-season working with USTA Player Development chief Patrick McEnroe, as well as coaches Jorge Todero and Jay Gooding. She said that they put their noses to the grindstone, and it showed in how she ran past the left-handed Safarova.
"I have a lot more experience than last year, and that helps a lot," said McHale, who was the youngest member of the year-end WTA top 45. "I was able to do more of a preseason and put in some good work. But to keep progressing, I had to keep working hard. There were matches that showed me I had a lot more to work on."
Many of McHale's friends are now sophomores in college, but she doesn't regret turning pro. During Christmas break, she caught up with them and asked about their own campus lives, rarely talking her international tennis travels. But she does not regret not having gone the university route.
"Not when they are talking about how many tests they have or are up to three in morning writing papers," said McHale, who will play New Zealand's Marina Erakovic in the second round. "This is what I love to do, and I love to compete at this level."
The 22-year-old King had a change of attitude during the off-season. She's always loved the sport, doesn't mind practicing and relishes match play, but she was no fitness freak, so she was getting injured too easily. She not only plays top-70 singles but, for the past year and half, has been a top-10 doubles player, winning 2010 Wimbledon and US Open titles with Yaroslava Shvedova and qualifying for the 2011 WTA Championships.
The Southern Californian native now lives in Florida to be near her coach Tarik Benhabiles (who once coached Andy Roddick). King turned pro a little more than five years ago and began her career as a counter-puncher, but she has developed into a more offensive player and has re-tooled her forehand. She's very quick but was not recovering like she wanted to.
"To be honest, I was not that professional about fitness, so I was really trying to work on that because I feel my tennis is there and I really enjoy being on court," she said. "To have good results motivates me to do better on fitness, which has always been tough for me because not everyone enjoys every part of what you do, and fitness was never something I really enjoyed. I was seeing the tennis side working well and know I can compete at a top level, but I would get injured or tired, so it motivates me to do better."
King, who is currently ranked No. 66, is hoping to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in London. She'll have to push up her ranking at least 10 spots by June in order to do so in singles, but she might also be able to qualify in doubles. But first things first, as she has to face the powerful 15th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, whom she beat last fall in Tokyo.
"I just have to execute," King said. "She's a big girl, and I'm not, so I better move the ball around, or she's going to take control and overpower me."
Hampton had a rough go of it midway through the 2001 clay-court season, when she was diagnosed with anemia and was forced to take a couple of months off to reassess her career. But she stuck with it and, during the off-season, trained at the USTA Player Development site in Boca Raton, Fla., where she and some of the other young players, like Alison Riske, Melanie Oudin and Madison Keys, drove each other hard.
The high-variety player also worked on managing her emotions and shot selection, which she will need in the next round when she takes the court against 2008 champion Maria Sharapova. It will be Hampton's first time on a big Slam show court, so it's likely she'll have at least a few nerves.
"She's a tremendous champion and has done all these great things, but the weird thing is she's 24 and I'm 22, and we are so close in age," Hampton said. "I'm just looking to have fun."