10 May, 2012

One To Watch: Varvara Lepchenko

Name: Varvara Lepchenko
Residence: Allentown, PA, USA
Age: 25
Current World Rank#77
WTA Tour Level Titles: 0
Signature Win: def. (11) Francesca Schiavone (ITA) 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 1st Round, Mutua Madrid Open 2012

This year's Mutua Madrid Open has certainly not wanted for headline material.  From the controversial introduction of the terre battue bleu, to Fernando Verdasco shockingly reversing his 13-match losing streak to Rafael Nadal, the 2012 tour stop in the Spanish capital has made about as much news as any single week on the calendar can handle...maybe more.  With so many other goings-on, the buzz-worthy performance by American Varvara Lepchenko has flown under the radar.  First, Lepchenko won two matches to qualify for the main draw.  Then she worked her way past 2010 Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone, as well as Shahar Pe'er and Anabel Medina Garrigues to book only her second WTA tour level quarterfinal at the $5.2MM combined event in Madrid.  With wins like those Lepchenko won't be under the radar much longer.

(More after the jump)

Lepchenko emigrated from Uzbekistan with her father and sister ten years ago (her mother came four years later).  Lepchenko became a naturalized US citizen last September.  "It was really tough back in Uzbekistan to continue developing my career, because everything's so far away, the average income per person is [low]...you can't really travel anywhere," Lepchenko recalled.  "There's no sponsorships, there's no professional tournaments, no nothing.  Once we came to the United States we started out on the ITF pro circuit and USTA pro circuit, small events.  We could travel by car from one tournament to another, we could stay with families...that really helped to continue my career.  The people that were helping me were Americans, they were all so welcoming....It made me realize that this is where I belong and this is the country I want to play for."  

With her success in Madrid, Lepchenko may have the opportunity to do just that soon.  On Monday, Lepchenko is guaranteed to become at least the No. 4 ranked American (passing Venus Williams).  The US has four singles slots available at the London 2012 Olympics Games.  Rumors to the contrary aside, Lepchenko is eligible for the US Olympic team.  "I made myself available for Fed Cup.  I asked (Fed Cup Captain) Mary Joe Fernandez....I want to prove myself.  I want to play for the United States at the Fed Cup, it's one of my dreams....I said, it would be my honor to play, anytime you need me, I'm available."  Lepchenko went on to explain that whether or not a player is actually selected for ties (Lepcheko wasn't), documenting one's availability with the Federation and team captain is what makes the player Olympic eligible.

Since becoming a US citizen, Lepchenko has begun taking advantage of USTA coaching and training facilities, which have given Lepchenko a leg up to solving Madrid's blue clay riddle.  "I've been laughing a lot because back in New York where I'm practicing, [there's] a surface exactly the same like this," said Lepchenko.  "[The courts are] always very slippery...sliding and not stopping obviously it's a tough situation, but I've been practicing for three weeks like that before, so I wasn't really surprised."

Lepchenko considers the key to her success here in Madrid to be experience, "I had, in the past, very close matches with all the players that I beat this week," she said "It was almost like stepping on the court and telling myself 'I can do it.'  I had those matches before, so it wasn't like I was playing them for the first time in my life."  Her next opponent, World No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, is also someone Lepchenko's played before. Radwanska won that encounter 7-5, 6-1.  Asked what she intends to do to reverse that outcome, Lepchenko points out, "I played her in Doha, "I was up 5-4 and serving 40-15 and I had two easy shots that I missed and that kind of decided the first set's destiny.  So just stay calm, relaxed..."

Lepchenko's destiny is in her hands.  We'll certainly be watching what's next.

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