By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
CARLSBAD, Calif. -- One of the reasons why Varvara Lepchenko is sitting at a career-high ranking of No. 44 is because she is such a hard worker and she’s usually not the type of person who takes a lot of time off to celebrate her accomplishments.
But after a standout spring and early summer that saw her reach the fourth round of Roland Garros, the third round of Wimbledon and make the U.S. Olympic team, she did give herself a present -- she adopted a kitten. She was unable to just rush into the pet shop and pick one out, though, as her boyfriend, who loves cats, was much more picky.
"We’ve been going (to the pet store), and he’s saying, 'This one is really thin, that one is not really playful,' so I decided to go without him. I went to pick it out, and he loves it now."
However, they haven’t agreed on the cat’s name yet. She wants to call it ‘Wimby,’ and he wants to call it ‘Siria.’ But they won't name it 'Roland Garros,' where she had her best Slam result, because that name is too long.
"We need a name that is small and cute because she’s still little and cute," Lepchenko said.
The left-hander is competing in this week’s Emirates Airline US Open Series tournament in Carlsbad, Calif. -- the Mercury Insurance Open.
On Monday, she beat NCAA champion Nicole Gibbs of Stanford, 6-3, 6-1, and will play the winner of the match between Bank of the West finalist Coco Vandeweghe – who is a San Diego local – and eighth seed Channelle Scheepers.
Unlike a couple of years ago when she might have grown wild against the quick retriever, Lepchenko stayed calm and used her weapons: her big lefty serve out wide that pulls her foe off the court, followed up by a sharp groundstroke, crosscourt, the other way. She does not retreat as much as she used to and did a good job of closing on the net, even though she came out flat, as it was her first match on a hard court since March.
"I wasn’t feeling that great this morning, so I felt like I needed to focus and stay consistent so it wouldn’t be a three-hour match," she said. "I guess that paid off. Everyone is good now, and there are little details that make the difference in the match. She’s a good player."
Lepchenko spent part of her post-Wimbledon lying on the couch, but she was also busy organizing her Olympic trip to London. It wasn’t until the second week of Roland Garros that she knew she had earned a spot on the team, beating out Sloane Stephens and Vania King by reaching the round of 16 and ending the tournament with a higher ranking than those two.
"It was still unreal to me, but now when I’m seeing on TV the commercials of the opening ceremony, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. I’ll be there walking.’ It’s amazing," said Lepchenko, a native of Uzbekistan. "When you are a little kid, you are always watching the Olympics on TV, and you are thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I can get into that world one day.’ And when it happens to you, you think, ‘Is this true? Am I sleeping?’ I have to slap myself in the face to realize it’s true. And then I’ll be walking under the U.S. flag, and it’s not just any country but the leading country, and people are telling me, 'You are lucky because it’s the country that treats the athletes and the people right.'"
Lepchenko’s visit to Carlsbad is only her second because in previous years her ranking was too low to get in. In 2005, she tried to qualify but lost in the first round. This week, she was just two ranking spots away from being seeded. In 2005, the now 26-year-old played 24 tournaments in an attempt to get her ranking to a respectable level.
But she’s not resting on her laurels, largely because she knows she has a bigger upside.
"There’s still a lot to improve, and that keeps me very motivated," she said. "It’s pretty amazing when you sit down and say I’m at this high ranking, but then you feel it’s because you were focusing on your forehand, backhand and footwork and not your ranking that your ranking went up."
Lepchenko moved to the United States 10 1/2 years ago and still keeps a home in Allentown, Pa., with her parents, but she also has a place in New York, as she trains at the USTA Training Center – East at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing.
Last September, she received her citizenship. This year, she’s shown herself to be a player to be reckoned with. On court and off, she’s a lot more confident.
"I feel like it’s a new beginning," she said. "I’ve got my citizenship, a new training base, and in my life, a lot of people started to tell me positive things about myself, and I started to believe them. And that made a big difference."