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Lepchenko’s unexpected Aussie doubles journey

January 22, 2013 07:17 AM
Prior to the 2013 Australian Open, Varvara Lepchenko had never advanced past the second round in women's doubles at a Grand Slam tournament.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
E—Although Varvara Lepchenko went down to Elena Vesnina in the second round of the Australian Open singles draw, the American didn't head out of town right after her loss—and it’s a good thing she stayed. Out of nowhere, she and her doubles partner, 18-year-old Saisia Zheng of China, have reached the women's doubles semifinals.

"It was very unexpected. I had to change my flight twice,"  Lepchenko said. "Saisai and I have a great relationship, and we complement each other."

Lepchenko had a career year in 2012, starting the season ranked No. 110 and ending it ranked No. 21, which in some analysts' eyes made her the most improved player of the season.

The highlights of Lepchenko's year were a standout spring and early summer that saw her reach the fourth round of Roland Garros (where she upset former champion Francesca Schiavone) and the third round of Wimbledon and the US Open. Plus, she made the U.S. Olympic team, which for her was a dream come true.
All that playing, however, took a toll as the year wore on. Lepchenko played nonstop in 2012, competing in 25 events. She said she felt worn down by the end of the season and won’t make the same mistake this year.

"It took a big toll on my body," said Lepchenko, who noted just how important good health is in a very physical sport that demands international travel. "Everyone is waking up every day and saying, 'God, please let me be healthy because I’m at the best moment of my life and I don't give it away and I want to keep going and improve.'"
In an attempt to stay healthy and fit, Lepchenko has stepped up her on- and off-court work in recent years, and she currently trains at the USTA Training Center - East at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., with coaches Patrick McEnroe, Jorge Todero, Jay Gooding and Jay Devashetty. She’s even hit with McEnroe this week in Australia.

As a result, the 26-year-old, who lives in Queens, N.Y., is a  smarter, fitter, better all-around player than she was two years ago. She has improved her left-handed serve and forehand by measurable degrees and now tries to play inside the court when she can, even though she’s fast and has the capability of defending well.

Still, Lepchenko is far from a finished project. She has been working on her footwork and on her concentration because those are her two major areas of concern and the things she feels cause her to commit too many unforced errors.

A native of Uzbekistan who received her U.S. citizenship in 2011 and has resided in Allentown, Pa., for 11 years, Lepchenko comes from humble beginnings. She, her father and her sister came to the United States with little money (her mother joined them later), so it's not in her makeup to rest on her 2012 laurels.

"I’m always trying to remind myself where I came from and what I need to do to improve, and that's the mindset I had last year when I was so eager and hungry to improve," she said. "I was just working, and I wasn't thinking, and I achieved this and that. At a certain point, it starts paying off. I gave myself the same strategy this year, to reflect on my work more than what I’ve achieved in the past."

Lepchenko is also trying to have a better time on court and not constantly expecting herself to perform at her top level, which no player can do. When she tries to have a good time, she finds that she loosens up and plays better.

She has also learned that even if she’s receiving the best coaching and training in the world, when she steps in between the lines, it’s on her.

"The biggest thing last year was I told myself to come to my senses and really want it myself," she said. "I have to be the one to wish for it, the one to want it."

Lepchenko’s daily commitment to getting up and getting after her career is evidenced by her run with Zheng in doubles, where the pair has beaten four quality teams in Sorana Cirstea and Tamira Paszek, Sam Stosur and Julia Goerges, Kimiko Date-Krumm and Arantxa Parra Santonja, and on Tuesday, seventh seeds Nuria Llagostera-Vives and Zheng Jie.

They will meet Aussies Ashley Barty and Casey Dellacqua in the semis in Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday night, right after Roger Federer faces Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a much-publicized men's quarterfinal contest. Australia will get a good look at her talents then.

And, by the way, not only is she motivated by improving and winning, but Lepchenko—who rarely plays doubles—had another form of motivation for staying Down Under.

"I don't want to go back to cold weather in New York," she said.
To learn more about up-and-coming American players and everything else you need to know about America’s Grand Slam, click here to sign up for the exclusive US Open newsletter.
For more coverage of American players at the 2013 Australian Open, see:


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