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Sunday March 7th

Same name, different paths

	<p>Sisters Lauren and Christina McHale have played tennis since learning to play in 1995</p>
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Sisters Lauren and Christina McHale have played tennis since learning to play in 1995

In the moments after the North Carolina women’s tennis team won the program’s first national title last month, senior Lauren McHale’s first text was to her best friend and closest confidant — her little sister, Christina McHale.

“Right when we won, I texted her, and she immediately called me,” Lauren McHale said. “We were all screaming on the phone. She and my mom were jumping up and down. It was awesome.”

But Christina McHale is more than just an interested younger sister — she’s also one of the top professional tennis players in the world, currently ranked No. 48.

At the ages of 6 and 4, respectively, Lauren and her sister were given their first tennis rackets and taught the game they love by their mother, Margarita McHale, whose own love of tennis fueled her desire to teach it to her daughters.

“I developed a passion for the game,” Margarita McHale said. “I wanted them to learn so they could have a sport for life.”

Those lessons didn’t come among the dogwood trees of North Carolina, or even in the McHale’s home state of New Jersey.

Instead, the McHale sisters started their tennis careers together in Hong Kong after their father’s job moved them there in 1995.

“We had tennis courts in the complex where we lived there,” Lauren said of her first tennis memories from Hong Kong. “My mom loved tennis, so she got (Christina) and I into it, and we just fell in love.”

Lauren McHale and her sister also swam while in Hong Kong, and they continued to be dual-sport athletes when the family moved back to the United States in 2000. Soon, though, their coaches were telling the sisters that they needed to focus on just one sport.

For Lauren McHale, it was an easy decision. Her passion for tennis well overshadowed her desire to keep swimming, and she was the first to choose.

Shortly after, Christina McHale’s admiration for her older sister led her toward tennis, too.
And before the older McHale was out of high school, her young admirer had done everything she had in tennis — and more.

In 2007, Christina McHale was invited to move to Boca Raton, Fla., to train at the U.S. Tennis Association Training Center.

“Lauren was sad they weren’t going to be seeing each other every day anymore, but she wanted Christina to do what was best for her,” Margarita McHale said.

Her mother said she has always been impressed with her eldest daughter’s lack of resentment, despite her slower progress in the sport.

“Lauren has never been jealous of Christina’s success,” Margarita said. “On the contrary, she is her biggest fan.”

Though they support each other, both sisters admit to a sibling rivalry on the court.

It’s a healthy competition, though, Christina McHale added — one that allows them to help each other improve.

“Growing up we practiced with each other almost every day,” Christina McHale said. “We pushed each other to keep trying to get better and better.”

Although Lauren McHale said she would have loved to follow her little sister’s footsteps, nagging foot injuries late in her high school career prevented her from jumping straight to the pro arena.

Instead, the elder McHale sister decided to take the safer route, accepting a scholarship offer to Princeton in 2008.

“I felt like (college) was the best thing for me,” Lauren McHale said. “I’m a little more social, and a team environment is better for me.”

She was there for less than a year, though, before it became clear that her ambition for tennis didn’t align with the more relaxed level of play at Princeton. Her potential, she felt, was being squandered.

And Christina McHale could tell that her older sister was unhappy at Princeton.

“I knew UNC was a great school, and Brian Kalbas had an excellent reputation as a tennis coach,” Christina McHale said. “So when she made her decision to switch, I was very supportive and happy for her.”

And as soon as the older McHale set foot in Chapel Hill she knew it was where she wanted to be.
She said it was the support from her sister that helped her make the difficult decision to go where her passion for the game of tennis could really blossom. It’s that kind of support that has always characterized the relationship between the McHale sisters.

“(Lauren) was the one who really pushed me to take a risk and (play professionally), because she said she really believed I could make it,” Christina McHale said.

But the sisters’ constant traveling has meant that support has had to come from around the world.
“It’s OK that they’re not there, because they really are there in spirit,” Lauren McHale said. “I can talk to them right after matches, and we can always talk before.”

And no matter how far the two McHales’ tennis careers take them from each other, Lauren McHale can always count on one thing: Her best friend is only a text away.

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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