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A RISING STAR JOINS THE AVIATORS

Posted on June 17, 2019

On a team stacked with fresh faces and promising talent from all over the globe, newcomer Kaitlyn Christian joins the Aviators as a relative local. The 27-year-old doubles specialist from just up the road a bit in Orange County played all four years at the University of Southern California, where she was an NCAA doubles champion with partner Sabrina Santamaria. She currently lives and trains just outside Palm Springs. She’s competed in the Morgan Run Women’s Open in Rancho Santa Fe. She even plays pickle ball from time to time at Bobby Riggs Racket and Paddle in Encinitas.

But Christian is also making huge strides on the WTA world stage. Shortly after going pro in 2014, she chose to focus solely on doubles, a decision that she says was a really easy one. “It’s much more fun, and my strengths also lie in doubles,” says Christian. “I love to serve and volley. My strengths in tennis are at the net, so it also fits into my game quite well.” She achieved a career-high ranking of World No. 38 in February of this year, reached the semis in Dubai, and made the quarterfinals in Doha as well as Indian Wells, where she and partner Asia Muhammad fell to the eventual champions, Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka. Though she admits it’s been a challenging clay court season, Christian’s ranking still hovers right around the Top 40 mark — a number she only wants to see improve as the year stretches on. “I definitely have a goal ranking-wise I want to reach,” she says. “I would love to finish [2019] in the Top 30.” If momentum is any indicator, that goal is definitely within reach. This time last year, Christian was ranked No. 67, and her climb up the rankings has been a steady one with consistent results.

One hurdle she’s hoping to overcome is the struggle to find a consistent partner. In 13 tournaments she’s competed in this year, she’s had 10 different partners, with unpredictable issues like injuries and schedule conflicts sometimes throwing curves that force her to make quick adjustments. However, it’s also taught her how to adapt. Though she prefers playing one particular side — ad — she says, “I’m trying to be flexible. You have to be. I think it’s pretty tough if you’re too set in your ways.”

That adaptability will serve her well in the fast-paced play of World TeamTennis, where she’ll step in for Anna-Lena Groenefeld for two matches as the Aviators travel to take on the New York Empire and the Philadelphia Freedoms. Though she’s familiar with teammate Astra Sharma through their shared resume playing college tennis — Sharma played at Vanderbilt — Christian will be sharing the court with her Aviators partners for the first time. And, like so many players of WTT, she is drawn to the camaraderie it offers players. “I’m looking forward to it because it kind of takes you back to your college days when you’re on a team and you’re surrounded by really great people, and it will be a nice break from the tour [and] being by yourself all the time, to just get to hang out with the other neat players and meet a lot of cool people,” she says.

She might be a World TeamTennis rookie, but Christian is anything but in the dark when it comes to her childhood idol, WTT founder Billie Jean King. In fact, Christian was Emma Stone’s body double for her portrayal of King in the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes, about the historic match between King and Bobby Riggs. “It completely fell onto my plate out of nowhere,” she says of being tapped for the role. Lornie Kuhle, Riggs’ friend and former coach who had a hand in the casting of the movie, saw Christian competing at the Morgan Run Women’s Open — Richard Gallien, her former coach at USC, had apparently told Kuhle to keep an eye out for her — and he invited her to try for the part. “The next day, I went in for an interview and an audition, and the day after that I got the part, so it was crazy,” remembers Christian. “I got lucky because I happened to be the same dimensions as Emma Stone body-wise, and my game is very similar to Billie Jean King’s. It was such an amazing time filming and getting to meet her.”

Emma Stone might be a huge name in Hollywood, but it was working with a tennis legend that was the true highlight for Christian. “I got to spend a few hours on the court with Billie Jean King. She’s been an idol of mine growing up, and it was so spectacular,” she says. Though she enjoyed working alongside the eventual Oscar-winner (Stone nabbed Best Actress honors in 2017 for her role in La La Land), she was hardly star-struck. In fact, Christian says she didn’t even know who Stone was initially. “I’m not one of those types of people to watch movies or watch tv; I’m sort of a ‘get out and play some sports’ kind of girl. But, I got to know her and she’s such a sweet person,” she says. To help Stone in the role, King would work with Christian to show her how she would have hit, and then Christian would mimic that and help Stone shadow swings for two hours a day for two months until she got it down.

“It was a really interesting process,” she says. But fortunately for the Aviators, not quite interesting enough to turn this tennis star into a Hollywood starlet.