By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- Varvara Lepchenko is an emotional player, but she's keeping her victories in perspective. The new U.S. citizen has at least temporarily become a master a winning three set matches: In the third round at Roland Garros, Lepchenko outlasted 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone 3-6, 6-3, 8-6 in just over four hours.
The lefthander has won seven out her last eight three setters, including two other hard-fought victories in Paris. In the first round, she overcame Ksenia Pevrak 6-2, 6-7, 6-4. In the second round, she survived former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4.
Lepchenko would not call the win over Jankovic her greatest feat to date - and maybe it was not - but it was an epic battle, as was her victory over Schiavone on a scorching-hot day. Every point seemed to be physical out on the tournament's famous Bull Ring (Court 1), and Schiavone's grunts shook the stadium.
Yet it was Lepchenko who was the more offensive player. Though she could not close out the match when she first served for it at 5-4 in the third, she didn't stop going for her shots and she literally hit the Italian off the courts at the end of the contest.
"I was trying to stay with Francesca the whole time," Lepchenko said. "She played amazing. I mean, it's her court, I knew that she's not gonna give it for free. I had to work really hard, and I did."
The 26-year-old is fitter than she was even at the start of last year when she had recommitted to improving her endurance. She is also constructing points with more acuity. Most importantly as of late, she has shut opponents down and does not get as nervous when trying to close.
"In the third set, it's just a matter of who's going to battle it out and stay in the match," Lepchenko said. "I feel like beating Pennetta [in the first round of Roland Garros] last year was one of the biggest wins for me.
"Also beating Francesca in Madrid was one of the toughest matches for me as well. I had to recover for three days after that. Having that experience, beating top players, helped me out. I believed in myself; I believed that I could do it."
A native of Uzbekistan, Lepchenko's received her citizenship last September residing in Allentown, Pennsylvania for 10 years. She described that as one of the happiest moments so her life. She seems settled personally and there isn’t a moment when she won’t credit USTA Player Development for giving her direction and her career new life.
USTA Player Development head Patrick McEnroe encouraged her to trust her forehand and use it as a weapon. Now she appears to have faith that she can consistently dictate play. After her win over Schiavone, Lepchenko tweeted McEnroe thanking him for believing her. Lepchenko also works with USTA coaches Jorge Todero and Jay Gooding.
"A lot people keep saying to me, 'Wow, you're hitting like a man from your forehand side,’" said Lepchenko. "You have a lot of the spin. A lot girls are hitting flat. That also gives me a belief in myself that I have something special, that weapon that can help me out."
Recently, Lepchenko has primarily practiced with fellow American Christina McHale at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., where they both train. McHale fell to defending champion Li Na in three sets on Saturday, leaving Lepchenko and Sloane Stephens as the only two Americans left in the singles draw.
"Last year they I had a group of coaches coming and watching me. We were working really hard. I was almost dying, like right now," Lepchenko recalled with a smile. "They told me, 'You got to believe in you.' You have great strokes, great potential. If you worked as hard as you work right now, you will reach Top 50. After I played [the 2012] Australian Open I lost three tight sets to Hantuchova, and I went back and I was very hungry for more because I knew that I didn't finish that match. We had a conversation with Patrick. He said, 'We need more women in the second week of Grand Slams.' I said, You know what? I'm going to work even harder. Hopefully you'll see me in the second week."
Lepchenko has now reached the second week and her next match will be again Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, which will be a very difficult, but not one that's impossible to win as the Czech has had a sporadic year.
McHale will leave Roland Garros ranked somewhere in the Top 35, which makes her for the U.S. Olympic team. Lepchenko is on the bubble, as is Stephens. Both Lepchenko and Stephens must reach the quarterfinals to pass Venus Williams in the Olympic race, who will be ranked somewhere around No. 52 when the rankings are released.
No one wants to think about, it, but Lepchenko hasn’t been able to avoid it.
The other day, she was sitting in the training room looking up at the scores and saw that Vania King was losing, who is also Olympic eligible. She decided not to look at the scoreboard anymore and went to watch the downstairs TVs.
"All the girls sitting down, they're talking about the Olympics," Lepchenko recalled. "They're like, 'Oh, we're taking three or four players and this and that.' I'm like, ‘Shoot, I'm out of here.’ So I'm walking up the stairs and I see the guy from Wilson. He comes up to me, 'Varvara, I just have one question for you.' I'm like, ‘yeah, sure. What is it?’ He's like, 'Are you able to play Olympics? Are you qualified for the Olympics?' I'm like, ‘Jeez, everybody now is going to ask me this question.’ So I was like running away from the people."
Not that an Olympic qualification wouldn’t mean the world to Lepchenko, whose family left Uzbekistan with little to nothing, only hopeful that life would be better across the Atlantic.
"I been dreaming to represent the U.S. at least at the Fed Cup," she said. "I never get a chance, but I told [captain] Mary Joe [Fernandez] that I'm going to work hard and I deserve to be on the team and that I can play well. I really want to represent Team USA at any stage.
"The Olympics - I don't think I ever dreamt about it in my life, even when I was a kid. It was more Grand Slams. But of course it would be an incredible feeling."