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Saturday, June 2, 2012
Last call to make U.S. Olympic team

By Kamakshi Tandon
ESPN.com

PARIS -- When Sloane Stephens takes the court against Samantha Stosur, she won't just be playing for a spot in the French Open quarterfinals, but possibly the Olympics as well.

With only four players from each country allowed to play in each Olympic event, the American women have been in a tight race to see which of them will be in the top four ranking positions when entries close June 11, the day after the French Open ends.

And things have got a whole lot more interesting during the past couple of days, thanks to the unexpected runs of 19-year-old Stephens and newly minted American citizen Varvara Lepchenko.

When the French Open began, the top four American women were Serena Williams, Christina McHale, Venus Williams and Vania King. Serena and McHale are secure in the top two spots, but Venus and King both lost in the second round, leaving themselves vulnerable. And now that Stephens and Lepchenko have both reached the fourth round, they have overtaken King and stand on the cusp of edging out Venus.

There are a number of possible combinations, depending on what happens in Stephen's and Lepchenko's next match:
•  Stephens and Lepchenko both win: both will move into the top four spots, edging out Venus and King.

• Stephens wins, Lepchenko loses: Stephens and Venus will be in the top four

• Stephens loses, Lepchenko wins: Venus and Lepchenko will be in the top four

• Stephens and Lepchenko both lose: Venus and Lepchenko will be in the top four

As a result, Stephens must win her next match to secure her spot. What was a big match against Stosur just got a little bigger.

But that's not the end of the story: Although ITF rules say national associations with more than four potential players "should select its four-highest-ranked eligible players based on the computer rankings," the USTA rules state that it "will use discretionary selection to select those who have the greatest potential to medal," including the option of keeping some slots for doubles players instead of singles. (Olympic rules also limit the total number of players from each country to six men and six women in all events.)

In short, the USTA could depart from the rankings in choosing among the eligible players, but who to leave out in the cold?

There's Stephens, who could be the future of the American women's game -- big potential, big personality and a compelling backstory.

There's Lepchenko, chasing the American dream and telling touching tales arriving from Uzbekistan with a tennis racket and not much else, finally settling in Allentown, Pa., thanks to the hospitality of a local tournament worker.

Then there's Venus, battling illness and rushing back to play for the chance of getting to play the Olympics. "The Olympics is just the ultimate in sports," she said. "I grew up watching those documentaries. My dad had us watch those. It was his dream for us to play there. Once I got a taste of it, it was just amazing.

"I love it there. That's the reason why I'm here, on the court today."

Venus would also be a definite medal threat in the doubles with sister Serena, but they currently do not have a doubles ranking, increasing the complications. It's also possible that Venus, as a former singles and doubles champ, could get one of the eight wild cards available if she doesn't make the team in the usual way, but it's unclear how the selection criteria would be applied.

And just to add to the muddle, Vania King is ranked No. 6 in doubles and would still be eligible through that route (top 10 doubles players get direct entry into the doubles event), though she is unlikely to be picked for doubles alone.

There has been controversy over team selection in the past. In 2000, with slightly different rules in place, Serena was awarded the fourth spot on the team instead of No. 1 doubles player Lisa Raymond.

Both Stephens and Lepchenko face tough tasks in the fourth round, as Lepchenko goes up against Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. But not nearly as tough as the USTA will have, if they keep winning.