By Matt Cronin
FROM THE BANK OF THE WEST CLASSIC AT STANFORD, DAY 2 – 2013 started off the wrong way for Varvara Lepchenko and it hasn’t gotten much better since, although she is hopeful she has turned the corner.
How emotionally trying was her start to the year? Consider this: just before her first round match at the season’s first event in Brisbane, she was walking out to transport with her father and sometimes coach Peter. He told her wasn’t feeling very well and all of the sudden he collapsed to the ground, and had to be rushed to the hospital where doctors discovered he had a multiple ulcers which were sapping his blood supply to the tune of 60 percent of his total. A strong and driven man who Varvara says tends to stress out too much, Peter did recover, but she was out of sorts to the point where her focus was nowhere to be found in her 6-2 6-1 loss to Serena in a match she was looking forward to.
Usually, like many players, she finds the court to be a refuge where she can put her off court problems behind her. But not on that day as reality slammed her harder than a Williams’ bullet forehand into the chest.
“It’s different when someone is in a very critical state and it can make a big difference in your life,” she told TennisReporters.net at Stanford. “It was very hard to concentrate. I am very close to him. It gave me a totally different perspective on life. I was just living in my bubble. There are so many other things in life more important than just tennis.”
Lepchenko had come into 2013 with a career high year-end ranking of No. 21, She had the best season of her life in 2012, where she reached the fourth round of Roland Garros, the semis of Seoul and the quarterfinals three times including when she qualified for Madrid.
But she wasn’t thrilled with her movement coming into 2013 and couple that with having to switch roles from being cared for to caretaker for her dad during the month of January and her Australian season went down the drain.
But then cast into a major role in a Fed Cup tie against Italy away on clay, she responded brilliantly in singles. Captain Mary Joe Fernandez knew that the lefthander was perhaps the only player outside of Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens (both of whom were absent) who could take down the might Italians on red dirt and she rose to challenge, battling past Roberta Vinci on day one and then smoking 2012 Roland Garros finalist Sara Errani on day 2.
A native of Uzbekistan who didn’t become a US citizen until the fall of 2011, Lepchenko has been dying to picked for Fed Cup. She loved being one of the team leaders and the go-to player, but she had caught a virus that weekend and after her match against Errani she was spent. However, Fernandez had to pick her for doubles to partner with Liezel Huber because rookie Jaime Hampton was way off her game and last minute substitute Melanie Oudin was having back issues. Lepchenko says that she wished she didn’t have to play the doubles, but understood why Fernandez took the risk of going with her because she has actually become a very competent doubles player and was on a roll. She was the captain’s only realistic option, but she was too tired to have a positive effect on the match and Errani and Vinci stopped she and Huber in what would have been an incredible upset abroad.
“I had nothing left,” Lepchenko said.
The she experienced about the same thing that Slovakia’s Dominica Cibulkova did during the next few weeks. Another top-25 player, Cibulkova had given it all in her nation’s 3-2 win over Serbia in Fed Cup, collapsing with body cramps on day two in marathon match. Like Cibulkova, Lepchenko still felt obligated to try and play Doha, which a Premier 5 level event that players who sign up for it must at least attend and if they don’t try and compete the face ranking (and possibly financial) penalties. So even though she had a fever, Lepchenko tried to complete her match against Klara Zakopalova, but couldn’t and finally retired down 7-6 (8) 3-0.
“That was terrible. I felt so awful,” she said of her physical state.
One of the reasons why there are still so many players dealing with multiple injuries – some small and some significant – is because they don’t stop and take time off to heal. The tennis calendar is a gerbil wheel and unless you are already an accomplished player who has won majors and has a lot of money in the bank courtesy of massive off court earnings (i.e. Serena and Maria Sharapova), it’s not easy to skip big events even if your body is telling your to do so. Lepchenko was new to the top 25 and had elite player goals, so instead of skipping one or two of Doha, Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami; she played every single one and compiled a 1-3 record. Admittedly, that was not a smart thing to do.
Armed with a dangerous left-handed forehand, slice serve and a pretty good two handed backhand, Lepchenko did have some reasonable expectations on the clay and while she didn’t play badly, unlike in 2012 when she was finding ways to gut out three setters, this time she lost a series of crucial ones to Venus Williams (Charleston), Svetlana Kuznetsova (Estoril), Kaia Kanepi (Brussels) and to Angelique Kerber in the third round of Roland Garros. There she had her chances, but she had suffered a foot injury in her second round win and wasn’t quick enough. She went down 6-4 in the final set.
Once again, she stubbornly didn’t rest long enough and lost both of her matches on grass. However, her first round defeat at Wimbledon did give her time to go home and heal, but she often drives herself too hard and her father had to tell her to take a day off before her 6-2 6-4 win over Michelle Larcher de Brito at Stanford on Monday.
“I need someone to tell me to stop,” she said, and then laughed and mentioned that her father was out on the courts practicing his own serve because he was unable to get it right. “He’s obsessed but he loves the game,” the 27 year old said.
Right around Wimbledon, she decided to change her coaching situation. She had been working with the USTA for the past three years to great success, but felt she needed more one-on-one attention. Her father is back in the mix and she’s trying out Roger Smith as an addtrional coach, who most recently oversaw Donald Young’s career and before that, Sloane Stephens’.
Lepchenko is currently ranked No. 40 and of course would like to be seeded at he US Open. She had to defend 402 points through New Haven, which isn’t a huge amount, but substantial enough to where she is going to have to have at least two pretty good results if she going to crack the top 32 by the time the US Open starts. She’s playing Stanford, Carlsbad, Toronto and Cincinnati, but won’t play New Haven. If she focuses of process rather than results – just like she did last year – she could end up in a very good place again. That is her plan.
“I’m not thinking I need to win this tournament, or get to this ranking,” said Lepchenko who will play Tamira Paszek in the second round of Stanford. “Of course it’sway in the back of my mind, but the main focus is improving little details in my game. I hear a lot of girls and some of my friends asking ‘what points do you to defend before the US Open,’ but I have to defend points every single week. If you aren’t hitting the ball well, who cares about the rankings? Everyone wants to win, but if you sit on the computer all the time counting points, it’s not going to get you anywhere.”
Also of note from Stanford
While the talented yet streaky Olga Govortsova’s 6-2 6-4 win over Samantha Stosur wasn’t a stunner given that the Aussie has had a sub par year, Urszula Radwanska’s 6-1 6-3 win over Christina McHale was a bit of stunner score-wise. McHale continues to struggle with her confidence and is playing way below her level. Coco Vandeweghe, who reached last year’s final is loving the quick courts again and thumped Monica Niculescu 6-0 6-3. Veteran Daniela Hantuchova seems to be back on track again and she out-thought Yanina Wickmayer 6-2 4-6 6-0. The Slovak then went out and practiced right after the match. Why? “That’s me,” she said. “Why make it easy when I can make it complicated?” Here is Hantuchova talking about her upcoming doubles partnership with Martina Hingis.