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Racket Response: Christina McHale the latest U.S. hero

Christina McHale beat Samantha Stosur in three hard-fought sets at Fed Cup. Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Peter Bodo@ptbodo: The U.S. Fed Cup team traveled to Australia this past weekend for a critical World Group Playoffs battle without Venus or Serena Williams, casting serious doubt on the squad's chance to make it back to the main tier in 2017.

But thanks to a great effort by Christina McHale, the U.S. swept the tie -- no small feat given that the Aussies were at home and led by Grand Slam champ Samantha Stosur.

Give American Madison Keys credit for starting things off on a high note with a stress-free 6-4, 6-2 win against Daria Gavrilova. The Aussies, though, were supposed to get their turn in the second rubber, when Stosur took on McHale, who had lost to the Aussie in all four previous meetings.

McHale has historically stepped up in Fed Cup, and the inspiration she feels in the competition might have given her that critical, final boost of confidence she needed against Stosur. The match lasted 2 hours, 20 minutes with McHale pulling out a thriller 3-6, 6-1, 7-5.

McHale's great effort was capped when Coco Vandeweghe, subbing for Keys in the third rubber, clinched the tie for the U.S. with her own upset of Stosur.

All this means the U.S. will be back in the World Group next year.


Carl Bialik@CarlBialik: From a distance, Rafael Nadal's recent Grand Slam record suggests he's on the decline. Since the 2014 French Open, he has suffered four losses before the quarterfinals in majors and has not reached a single semifinal.

But look more closely, and you'll see a player who appears to be on the rise the past six months.

Since the start of 2015 through Beijing this past fall, Nadal won just two of 10 matches against top-10 players -- both on clay. He won that many last week in Monte Carlo alone.

And since Shanghai -- the tournament after Beijing -- Nadal has eight wins against the top 10 against just five losses, three of them to Novak Djokovic.

Nadal caught a break last week when No. 1 Djokovic lost his opening match against Jiri Vesely. Nadal took advantage of this anomaly, though he did lose sets against Andy Murray in the semis and Gael Monfils in the final. But the bottom line is that Nadal won his first title since last August and his first Masters championship since capturing Madrid in 2014.

With a few more weeks like that one, Nadal could pass Stan Wawrinka in the rankings and return the Big Four to the top four.


Martyn Thomas@MCThomasSport: Gael Monfils is dreaming of French Open success after taking Rafael Nadal to three sets in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters.

One of the more infuriating players on tour with great talent but relatively little to show for it, the Frenchman has hit form in 2016, making the final in Rotterdam as well as Monte Carlo.

After his latest encouraging run, Monfils told the media: "I'm continuing to learn. In two weeks, I'm hoping to be better. In three weeks, too, and [I want to] be better for the French Open.

"I want to win a big title. A big title could have been here already. I'm far, but I'm not that far. I'm going to practice well, because I want to go to [the Madrid Masters] being ready. And in Rome, too. After that, the French Open is a dream. It's my dream."

Nadal confirmed Monfils' potential is as great as ever. "If he's able to play solid," the Spaniard said after the final, "he's one of the toughest opponents you can face."

Maybe the time has finally come for the 29-year-old to turn that promise into major success at Roland Garros.


Who's trending high and low

Garcia

Caroline Garcia: Thanks in large part to the precocious 22-year-old, France clawed its way back from a 2-1 deficit to beat the Netherlands to reach the Fed Cup final. After dropping her opening singles match, Garcia won her next and then teamed with Kristina Mladenovic to capture the fifth-and-deciding doubles rubber.


Bacsinszky

Timea Bacsinszky: She played brilliantly in Miami but lost both of her singles matches in the Fed Cup semis against the Czech Republic this weekend. The Swiss won only eight total games in four sets.