Varvara Lepchenko in action against Roberta Vinci in the 2013 Fed Cup First Round.
© Ray Giubilo
Jamie Hampton awaits a serve from Sara Errani.
© Ray Giubilo
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Win or lose, it was going to be an emotional day for Varvara Lepchenko, who was making her Fed Cup debut after securing her U.S. citizenship in 2011.
But when the 26-year-old closed out her more than two-hour, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Italy’s Roberta Vinci, it was even more so. She thanked her teammates for their support and dedicated the win to her fiancée, Taras, who proposed last October, two years after the couple first met.
Lepchenko held her nerves despite being broken twice when serving for the match, saving two break points in the final game to serve out the victory and even the 2013 Fed Cup first-round tie, 1-1, after Day 1 of the best-of-five series an indoor clay court in Rimini, Italy. Earlier in the day, Sara Errani had given Italy the early 1-0 lead with a 6-2, 6-1 win over another Fed Cup rookie, Jamie Hampton.
"It has been amazing to be a part of a team this week. I have so much support from all of them," Lepchenko said. "I feel like I can’t let them down. I played more for them today than for myself. I am really proud of the way I handled myself today."
While the first in Fed Cup, this was Lepchenko’s second time representing the U.S., having worn the Stars and Stripes at the London Olympics last summer. Her appearance in the Summer Games highlighted a breakout season that also saw her reach the round of 16 at Roland Garros and the third round at the US Open. She finished the year at her current ranking of No. 21, after finishing 2011 at No. 110.
"There were a lot of emotions during the Olympics and I enjoyed the process," Lepchenko said. "I didn’t play my best tennis there and I wanted to do a lot better here this time for my country. I am very proud to represent my country."
Errani, the world No. 7 and 2012 French Open runner-up, topped Hampton in just over an hour, on the surface that best suits the tremendous spin on her forehand. For her part, Hampton said she was happy to have the opportunity to represent her country, although she wished she could have done more.
"Obviously, it wasn’t the way that I would have liked it to go, but it was nice," Hampton said. "The best part of today was definitely making my debut and playing for this team and representing my country."
Vinci controlled the early part of the match against Lepchenko. But the left-hander battled back to force a third set and looked like she would cruise from there. She jumped out to the early lead in the third set and kept her foot on the gas, taking a 5-1 lead against Vinci, who struggled with cramping as the set progressed.
But Vinci would not be denied, winning the next four games to level the set at 5-5. Despite nerves, Lepchenko immediately regrouped, breaking back at love in the next game and fighting off two break points in the final game to close it out.
"I lost my focus in the third set. I became distracted, but I kept on fighting," Lepchenko said. "I kept telling myself that the match wasn’t over—that I can still win it."
That kind of attitude was thrilling for U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez.
"I was really proud of the way Varvara approached the match and how disciplined she was," Fernandez said. "Even when she was down, she competed really well. It probably wasn’t easy for her playing for the first time in Fed Cup without a home crowd, but she did a great job blocking it out. She kept fighting and kept believing. She played her heart out."
Lepchenko takes the court first Sunday against Errani, followed by Vinci versus Hampton and finally the doubles rubber, scheduled to be Liezel Huber and Melanie Oudin of the U.S. against Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett of Italy. Fernandez and Italian Fed Cup Captain Corrado Barazzutti, however, have the option to adjust their lineups.
The U.S. needs two more points to pull off the upset, and Fernandez said she is looking forward to seeing what her team can bring on Day 2.
"We are still in this tie and it is fantastic. I told the girls that the goal was to win any three matches any which way," she said. "We have one, so we are looking for two tomorrow. Varvara will play Sara. Sara has great clay-court variety and is a strong Top 10 player. Jamie will go out there against Vinci and give it her all. I’m excited."