Veteran American Christina McHale played her opening match today at the Oracle Challenger Series Newport Beach presented by RBC Wealth Management, taking a tough contest 7-5, 6-4 over fellow American Grace Min.
The fact that roughly half the draw is comprised of Americans presents an interesting hurdle for Christina. Her coach, Peter Lucassen, is employed by the USTA and thus can’t contractually coach against another American player.
Fortunately, a friend, family member and fellow touring pro was on hand to step in and lend a hand as an on-court coach. Ryan Harrison, who has reached a career-high of No.40 in the world on the ATP Tour, is married to Christina’s sister, Lauren, who is also here in Newport Beach this week. Both seasoned professionals, they are oftentimes each other’s sounding boards when it comes to strategy and tactics.
“I immediately texted Ryan when I found out I was playing another American,” said Christina. “Nobody knows my game better, he’s been watching me play for years and has been my on-court coach before when our schedules work out. It was a no-brainer, if Ryan’s available, I want him.”
Their friendship began way before Ryan’s marriage into the McHale family, with the duo growing up together in juniors. Each has one tour-level title to their name and have some big wins over top players.
“We go way back – we did our first Junior Davis Cup and Fed Cup together when we were about 12 years old,” said Ryan. “So we’ve got a long history of watching each other play. I’m very familiar with her game – I’ve seen her playing her best tennis and know the style of play that she plays when she’s playing well.”
Ryan came on court twice during Christina’s second round match, not necessarily to change the way she was playing, but to give confidence and provide feedback from an outside perspective.
“It’s just reassurance out there on the court, going through things she knows and has heard 1,000 times,” said Ryan about his on-court visits. “We try to figure out the right situation to apply little fixes or strategy. It’s nice to have a voice out there that you trust.”
Today, specifically, her opponent was capitalizing on short balls and rallies in her strike zone. So Ryan urged Christina to trust her biggest weapon – a big, topspin forehand.
“Christina’s forehand is unique in that she gets a lot of shape and topspin on it, which can be really difficult for a lot of players to handle. It’s one of those forehands that if she gets ahold of it, it can really dictate points. We tried to find creative ways for her to get in control of the point with her forehand.”
The dynamic between an athlete and someone who is a friend or family member who also plays a coaching role can be a tricky line to bridge, but Christina knows what helps her mid-match to continue her winning ways. And having that trust in someone is key to confidence in closing out matches.
“Normally I have a couple things on my mind that I want to bounce off of him,” said Christina about on-court coaching visits. “And he helps reassure me on things I should start doing or keep doing. If he tells me something, I know that’s what’s best for my game at that point.”
But what about during family functions? Can they avoid shop-talk while around the table for Thanksgiving dinner? Lauren also played tennis in college, a standout at the University of North Carolina. Oh, and Christian, Ryan’s younger brother, plays professionally as well. The siblings are in the doubles draw this week in Newport Beach. Christina and Christian also reached the semifinals of Mixed Doubles at the 2018 US Open. Talk about family ties.
“We have a pretty healthy balance,” said Ryan. “Christina and I both share passion for tennis, of course, and we both love playing on top of just being professionals. Some people don’t want to take it home with them, but for us it doesn’t feel like a burden.”
Ryan is coming back from an elbow surgery that cause him to miss the rest of 2019 after the US Open, and fell in a tight first round match in Newport Beach yesterday.
“Christina was supportive of me yesterday even though it wasn’t my best match,” he said. “I got off the court and she was there.”
“We each know what the other is feeling when it comes to tennis,” added Christina.
Should the tables turn and Christina has the opportunity to coach Ryan on court, she would take a very straightforward approach.
“He’s got one of the best serves on tour, so I’d just tell him to do your thing and hit aces!”
“She’d walk out, give me a chill pill and tell me to take a deep breath,” retorted Ryan. “Take away four of my racquets so I only have one left.”
“So he can’t break any!”
“Tennis is an individual sport,” Ryan said as he wrapped up his day on site “So even though you have good relationships out there, you don’t get paid off when any of your friends do well. So when you have a situation like this where you’re not in direct competition with each other, it becomes very easy to build supportive relationships.”
He comes back tomorrow playing doubles with Christian – and if scheduling permits, you can bet Christina will be watching.