A meltdown, a birthday bash and a comeback

Heartbreak Kid: the McHale meltdown

PARIS -- Unless she's extremely lucky, in every player's career comes a match that goes horribly wrong. Just a few final strokes are left to put the match into the record books, but then disaster strikes, the implausible turns plausible, and somehow the opponent walks off the winner.

That's just the kind of day American Christina McHale had Monday at the French Open.

McHale, 19, was leading Sara Errani, an Italian accustomed to slogging on clay courts, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 5-0. The American appeared in little danger of losing.

But then, shockingly, the match unraveled quickly for McHale. Errani took the next six games, allowing McHale to win only six of 30 points. The Italian squandered two match points on serve in the 12th game, but at 7-7 she stepped up to win the final two games and take the match, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 9-7.

McHale was disconsolate over the loss. The Teaneck, N.J., native showed up to talk to a small group of American media members. She dissolved into tears but managed to pull herself together to discuss the collapse.

"I started to feel something in my leg. I got my 5-0 lead going for my shots, but then I wasn't doing it anymore. ... I panicked and she started feeding off of that, and before I knew it, it was 5-all," McHale said. "I thought the match was in my control, and then it was slipping away and I couldn't stop it. Right now, I don't have answers about why it happened and how I let it happen. I'm very upset and disappointed in myself."

Mary Carillo, the 1977 French Open mixed doubles champion with John McEnroe and currently a TV commentator, attempted to provide McHale with an alternative perspective. "Kid, you do know that's happened to everybody?" Carillo said. "Sara Errani's lost matches like that. Everybody here that's swung a racket knows exactly how that feels. You got to know that, no?" McHale greeted Carillo's comments with the barest of smiles.

Mary Joe Fernandez, an ESPN commentator and the U.S. Fed Cup captain, has had McHale on two Fed Cup teams (she is 0-3 in Fed Cup matches) and immediately sent her an uplifting email.

Fernandez drew on her own experience playing the reverse role in a similar match in the 1993 French Open quarterfinals: She trailed Gabriela Sabatini 6-1, 5-1 and fought off five match points to win 1-6, 7-6 (4), 10-8. She lost in the final to Steffi Graf.

"I told her she's still young and inexperienced, and something like this will make her stronger," Fernandez said. "These matches hurt a lot and it will take her a while to get over it, but she's a fighter.

"And, at least, she now knows these are the types of matches that you can also win."

Birthday bash

When you're Novak Djokovic and it's your birthday, you get to celebrate in a big way. Djokovic turned 24 on Sunday, and the impromptu party took place at the Serbian embassy.

"Yesterday, we had a visit in the Serbian embassy," said Djokovic, who improved his winning streak to 38-0 this year with a swift 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 win over Thiemo De Bakker of the Netherlands on Monday. "It was a nice event. Not just me, but a whole group of tennis players, men and women from Serbia. It was nice to be a part of that, but I had to make it short because I had the match today."

If anyone came up with a birthday cake for Djokovic, hopefully it was gluten-free. The world No. 2 recently discovered he's gluten-intolerant.

Having grown up with parents who owned a pizza and pancake restaurant, there was a great deal of gluten in his former diet. But not to worry, he's not going without his favorite foods. "There is pizza, gluten-free pizza. But not many people make it," he said.

Back in business

There aren't many 33-year-olds who would mount a comeback after more than a year recuperating from right hip surgery (February 2010) and right elbow surgery (March 2010). Tommy Haas, a former top-10 player, is taking a stab at returning to the tour.

On Monday, Haas played his first singles match since his surgeries. He put in a good effort before falling to Marsel Ilhan of Turkey 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (1), 6-4.

Haas, who lives in Florida, found out during his time away from the game that there's a lot more to life than tennis. His most important discovery: the joy of fatherhood. Daughter Valentina was born in November.

"It's a total rush," he said. "You don't really know what to expect. You hear a lot of stories, but until it happens to you, you can't really know how you feel and how your heart opens up."

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