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Serena loves upsides of McHale and Stephens

June 28, 2012 02:38 PM
Christina McHale next faces Angelique Kerber in the third round at Wimbledon.
Sloane Stephens has reached the third round at Wimbledon for the first time.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com

LONDON, England - Serena Williams often talks about "me" and admittedly is very focused on keeping herself happy, but nonetheless she has recently taken on mentoring two of America's top young women: Sloane Stephens and Christina McHale.
Both Stephens and McHale will contest third round matches on Friday at Wimbledon, with Stephens going up against last year's semifinalist Sabine Lisicki and McHale facing the red hot eighth seed, Angelique Kerber.
The 20-year-od McHale is seeded at Wimbledon for the first time at No. 28, while Stephens was the youngest player to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros a few weeks back and is about to crack the top 50.
Both got to know 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena during Fed Cup weeks this year. Both have high praise for her, as she does for them.
"They're great people," said Serena after her 6-1, 6-4 victory over Melinda Czink. "They're great kids. They're going into their adult life. They're really fun. I'm able to be a good role model for them and lead them and teach them to have lots of fun and how to laugh. Sometimes they're a little more mature than I am. But nonetheless, we have a blast when we always play together, so it's cool."
Neither McHale nor Stephens had easy second round victories, with McHale taking out the streaky Mathilde Johansson 7-5, 7-5 and Stephens edging No. 23 Petra Cetkovska 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3.
McHale is still learning to play on grass and for someone who grew up as counterpuncher it is not easy to be asked to go on offense as often as the surface demands, but she does push herself forward when balls fall short. Perhaps because she isn’t an overpowering player, she has become a bit of a marathon woman, contesting three setters in five out of her last seven matches.
In the first round, she had to overcome Britain’s Johanna Konta 6-7 (4), 6-2, 9-7 in a match that was suspended overnight for darkness at 7-7, then once again for rain the next day when she was down 8-7. She eventually pulled out the win, but the night before when she got off court the players’ restaurant was closed, so she had to have the cook in the media dining room fry her up a steak. The slab of meat tasted good, as even though she was tired, she was wide-awake with the knowledge that she won the match. The night before she could not escape a relentless dreaming cycle.
"I had a couple of dreams about the match," McHale said. "When I first woke up from a dream, I had lost it. Then I went back to sleep. Soon I dreamed that I won it, and woke up again. Then I woke up and we were replaying the match. I must have spent half the night playing the match again in my dreams. I'd wake up and realize, 'Okay, that didn't happen.' Then I'd go right back to sleep."
McHale is terrific mover and looks like a determined rabbit running from a hungry hound on grass, as she takes small but blindly fast steps. She didn’t have trouble sleeping before the Johansson contest, which is good thing, because a young athlete needs her rest. Well, maybe not as many as McHale seems to need.
"I sleep a lot," she said. "I'd say like 10 hours. I need my sleep."
Even though she is still a teen, Stephens keeps finding ways to dig deep and win matches against notable players. She rarely seems to get rattled or fear the big occasion.
"I wish there was a secret I could tell you," she said. "But it just happens. When I was younger, I was freaking out and throwing racquets and stuff. But focusing makes me relax. I play like I'm sitting on my couch."
Stephens didn’t get to know Serena until February, but now she calls her one of her best friends. They are both talkative extroverts who goof around all the time. They rarely talk tennis, unless Stephens asks and then Serena opens the door.
"That's my girl. She's so cute. I love her to death," Stephens said.
Stephens has no fear of Lisicki's serve and doesn’t recall that the German was clocked in the low 120s at Wimbledon last year. McHale says she has to blunt Kerber's left-handed serve and make sure it's not the German who is dictating.
For her part, Serena sees a bright future for U.S. women’s tennis with those two in the mix.
"Christina, I think she's so tough," Serena said. "She has a great game, very consistent, a little bit like a backboard. Has a really, really good game. I think Sloane has a beautiful game. She's effortless. She doesn't have to try to hit a winner; she just does it so easy. She looks so smooth when she plays. She's such a talented player. They both carry the flag really well."


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