Print and Go Back More Sports

Saturday, June 2, 2012
Lepchenko levels former French champ

By Joanne C. Gerstner

PARIS -- It was a compelling tale of two ongoing dramas, unfolding simultaneously, on two stages of red clay on Saturday.

On Court Suzanne Lenglen, New Jersey native Christina McHale was trying to upset 2011 French Open champion Li Na. On court No. 1, affectionately called the "Bull Ring" because of its round shape, American immigrant Varvara Lepchenko was trying to upset 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.

Both unseeded U.S. women were playing in their first career third rounds of Grand Slams, against seasoned -- and seeded -- players who excel on clay. What unfolded was magic, sprinkled with equal parts of heartbreak and exhilaration. Lepchenko overcame her nerves to defeat No. 14 Schiavone, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6, to reach the round of 16. McHale started strongly but couldn't sustain her play, as she lost 6-3, 2-6, 1-6 to No. 7 Li.

Lepchenko joins fellow American Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. Stephens will play sixth-seeded Samantha Stosur on Sunday. Lepchenko's next match will be against fourth seed Petra Kvitova.

"[I was] just fighting till the end," Lepchenko said. "I was trying to stay with Francesca the whole time. She played amazing. I mean, it's her court, you know. I knew that she's not going to give it for free. I had to work really hard, and I did."

Lepchenko, a 26-year-old from Allentown, Pa., looked drained from the three-hour match, played mid-day in nearly 80-degree, full-sun conditions. Even she marveled that she was able to defeat Schiavone for the second time in three weeks on clay. The first time was in Madrid in late April, with Lepchenko taking a three-set first-round battle on the blue clay.

"In Madrid she was missing so much and making easy errors, and here she started out amazing," Lepchenko said. "I was like, 'Oh, now I know why she won a Grand Slam.' I mean, she was playing unbelievable. I had to really pull it together and stay very aggressive and fight. Till the very end, I didn't know if I'm going to win, but I kept believing in myself. I kept thinking, 'OK, this is going be over soon for me,' but something deep inside of me still was like, 'No, you can do it, you can do it.' … I'm so happy to be through."

Stephens' and Lepchenko's winning have kept alive their dreams of being on the U.S. Olympic team. Serena Williams and McHale, because of their higher rankings, are probables to be half of the four-woman list. Venus Williams is in third place, with Lepchenko fourth, based on current working math from the French Open. Stephens has leap-frogged Vania King to get into the equation.

If Stephens and Lepchenko both reach the quarterfinals, they will pass Venus to be in full contention.

But first things first: Reaching the second week of the French Open is a huge deal, as Stephens and Lepchenko join Venus, Lindsay Davenport and Serena as the only women to get that far since 2005.

The last time two American women reached the second round was in 2010, when Venus and Serena made it. Venus lost in the fourth round, in straight sets, to Nadia Petrova. Serena bowed out in the quarterfinals, in three sets, to Stosur.

McHale also wanted to reach the second week of the French Open, but realized, in the second and third sets, that she was playing a seasoned player with more poise. Li began closing in to maximize her groundstrokes, and McHale helped her out by not hitting out as deeply as she did in the first set.

Li's change of strategy worked, and McHale couldn't find her way back into the match. Li praised McHale afterwards, saying she is progressing well into becoming a stronger player. McHale, ranked No. 36, smiled when she was told of Li's assessment. McHale seemed introspective enough after the loss to realize she shouldn't be too upset, as the big picture leaving Paris looks brighter.

"I'll just have to use this match and learn from it," said McHale, 20. "Playing players like her in these rounds at tournaments is still new for me. So I'm just going to take the positives from it and keep going."

Lepchenko was allowing herself a few hours to bask in her breakthrough before settling down for a day of practice and preparation for Kvitova. The match against Schiavone was a messy affair: Lepchenko had 44 unforced errors and 30 winners, while Schiavone committed 37 unforced errors and 30 winners. Play was physical, punishing and draining, with long rallies and kitchen-sink shotmaking. There was a lot of cat-and-mouse play, through moon-ball rallies, daring somebody to take a risk to end the cadence.

Lepchenko tried to stay aggressive, and was frequently rewarded for her courage. She was up 5-3 in the final set, and withstood Schiavone's comeback surge to still win the match.

Nothing has come easy in Lepchenko's career, but she said her belief in her strength has made the difference. She ended 2011 ranked No. 111, and has since moved up to 63. Her ranking will shoot up much higher, into the 50s, after the French Open.

She grew up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and came to the U.S. with her father, Peter, and sister, Jane, in 2001. She said they left Tashkent for a better life in the U.S., and hopefully to further her tennis career. They had little money, but found a kind patron in Allentown, Shari Butz, who took them in to live with her.

Lepchenko's mother, Larisa, was not allowed to come to the U.S. until 2005, so Butz also turned into a surrogate mother. Lepchenko became an American citizen Sept. 23, 2011, in a moment of which she said she was "reborn, like it was my birthday," according to Allentown's Morning Call newspaper.

She made a point Saturday of acknowledging Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Tennis Association's general manager of player development, and her group of USTA coaches for believing in her and working to develop her talent. She's also been hitting with McEnroe while at Roland Garros.

McEnroe said Lepchenko's work over the past year, at the USTA's development center in New York City, has focused on getting her physically stronger and more confident in using her forehand as a weapon. She used to go more with her backhand on shots that came down the middle, but McEnroe and others recognized the weapon her forehand could be. Getting fitter improved her footwork, which allowed her to step around into her lefty forehand.

Lepchenko started using the forehand more here at the French, a shot that McEnroe describes as a very heavy-hit ball. Her confidence is growing, as is the range of her game.

"She's put the work in, and it's not been easy at times," said McEnroe, an ESPN analyst. "She's stayed the course. What she did today, I don't think it would have been possible a year ago. She found out a lot about herself today. She battled that whole match. She stayed calm and got through all the ups and downs.

"… I remember telling her, a year ago, 'You stay working hard, and I'm guaranteeing you top-50.' She's earned it. And she should be so proud of herself. I think she's a great story: somebody who's come to this country, is proud to be an American now, and she's worked hard to make herself a success."