Print and Go Back More Sports [Print without images]

Monday, June 4, 2012
Lepchenko falls but likely gains Olympics

By Joanne C. Gerstner

PARIS -- It was clear that Varvara Lepchenko was utterly emotionally conflicted Monday evening as she alternated between smiling at a dream attained and kicking herself for an opportunity lost.

She was angry with the way she had played in her fourth-round match against fourth-seeded Petra Kvitova at the French Open. It was a lopsided affair, with Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion, advancing 6-2, 6-1. Kvitova will face unseeded Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan in the quarterfinals.

Lepchenko's defeat ends the run of American women in the singles draw. Lepchenko said that everything she previously had done correctly to advance, such as using her flat and heavy-hit forehand effectively, abandoned her.

Varvara Lepchenko
Nothing that Varvara Lepchenko tried worked during her lopsided 6-2, 6-1 loss to fourth-seeded Petra Kvitova.

But then the subject of the London Olympics came up, and Lepchenko turned emotional, almost to the point of choking up with joy. She should make the U.S. Olympic team because of what she achieved at the French Open, a prospect she had tried not to think about during the past week. She went the deepest in a Grand Slam in her career, and it will mean a move up from her pre-tournament WTA ranking of No. 63. The four top-ranked U.S. women should make the Olympic team, and Lepchenko is expected to just make the cut and join Serena Williams, Christina McHale and Venus Williams.

Lepchenko, 26, came to the U.S. when she was 15 and became a naturalized citizen last year. The girl from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, likely will wear the red, white and blue in London. The team will not be named until after the rankings come out and the official nomination process takes place later this month.

"Unbelievable, I am playing [in] the Olympics," said Lepchenko, with a slight tone of disbelief in her voice and a big smile on her face. "It's not just for any country, for [the] USA, and the whole big ceremonies, that [I] have been watching before when the Olympics were actually going on. I was dreaming about being there and actually experiencing that. It's an amazing feeling."

Lepchenko paused and shook her head in wonder. Her words stopped her in her tracks.

She was going to the Olympics. But she also had just lost a big match.

"I don't know. ... I'm sad, and at same time I'm excited; it's a mix of feelings," Lepchenko said.

Lepchenko had hoped to make the Olympic team since the start of the year, wobbling between believing in herself and getting down after losses. It was a big goal, as she started the year ranked 127th. She cut her ranking in half while compiling a 23-15 record. Lepchenko said the hard work she's put in trying to get fitter, faster and stronger at the U.S. Tennis Association's development center in New York City has made a difference.

She's still chasing her goals and the big dreams that brought her and her family to the U.S. Seeing progress at a Grand Slam and making the Olympic team renew her drive to keep driving herself harder.

"When you're young, and dreaming big, you believe in everything," Lepchenko said. "You always have, in the back of your mind, all of these big things. Not only the Olympics, but winning Grand Slams ... you always have that in your mind. Otherwise, there would be no reason for me to be here if I didn't dream big."

Despite the warm and fuzzy moments after the match, Lepchenko was stung by the one-sidedness of the loss. Her aggressiveness and moxie while winning her first three matches at Roland Garros were tempered against Kvitova. She was the best opponent Lepchenko had faced so far, and Kvitova neutralized her advantage of being a hard-hitting lefty by being one, too.

The match slipped away quickly, and Lepchenko was never in position to dictate play. Both sets went in similar fashion, with Kvitova jumping out to commanding 3-0 leads.

"I was pretty flat today, and I don't know the reasons," Lepchenko said. "Maybe it was because it was cold, and I had played in hot conditions. I was rushing too much, and I didn't show any of the tennis pretty much. It was like a walk in the park [for Kvitova]."

"I wasn't able to come up with anything because I wasn't moving my feet, not doing anything I was supposed to do."

The conditions were challenging at Roland Garros. The wind swirled and blew up to 16 mph, and the temperatures fell into the upper 50s under the dark, threatening early-evening Paris sky. Lepchenko and Kvitova sometimes bundled themselves under blue Roland Garros bath towels during changeovers, trying to ward off the chill.

The shots Lepchenko made to beat 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the third round were harder to come by against Kvitova in the slow conditions. Everything Lepchenko tried was turned aside by Kvitova. Lepchenko didn't appear nervous playing in front of a sparse crowd. She was at first frustrated, then accepting of Kvitova's superiority.

Lepchenko wants to do more than get to the start of the second week of a major, but on days like this, when she was utterly outclassed, she thinks about what she needs to do to improve.

"It's hard to put something like this behind you, because you feel like you're getting to this level, to the top level, playing better and better," Lepchenko said. "And all of a sudden you're starting from zero. I've had losses like this in Brussels and here, and I have to figure out the way not to have days like that.

"If I want to win big tournaments, I cannot afford to play like that. In the future, I need to figure out the key to that, and I will become a more confident and better performer."

This was a day for Lepchenko to be conflicted, but when the pain of losing wears off, her heart will be filled with happiness. She lost a match but realized she probably achieved her Olympic dream.

And that's something for her to remember fondly about Paris.