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Next wave of U.S. women makes strides at French Open

Photo: /SI

New U.S. citizen Varvara Lepchenko is the last American standing at the French Open.

It was just two years ago that American women's tennis went straight off the cliff. There were 14 players entered in the 2010 Australian Open, 12 of them were dismissed in the first round, and by the end of round two, only the 29-year-old Venus Williams was left standing.

The general feeling was one of despair, a sense that there wasn't a single young player on the rise, and that it might take some distant generation to make any kind of impact on the Grand Slam circuit.

As the second week of the French Opens begins, there hasn't been much change at the top. Serena Williams was shockingly beaten in the first round, leaving little hope that an American player could actually win the event. But we're seeing the makings of a revolution at ground level, a group of once-mysterious names gaining recognition by the day.

Most of them were around that fateful week in Melbourne. Seasoned by experience, no longer flustered by the stage, they had no intention of leaving Paris within hours of their arrival. In a development that surely triggered champagne toasts in the USTA offices, American women went 10-0 on the first two days at Roland Garros. Then 19-year-old Sloane Stephens reached Sunday's fourth round, performing admirably in a 7-5, 6-4 loss to Sam Stosur, and Varvara Lepchenko will take her shot at the quarterfinals as she meets Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on Monday.

Lepchenko has become one of the most intriguing stories in tennis, complete with an undercurrent of skepticism shadowing her remarkable first week. The 63rd-ranked player has suddenly become a legitimate candidate to make the Olympic team in London, causing people to mutter, "Wait a minute -- she only became a U.S. citizen last year (September)."

More to the point, since she meets every Olympic qualification standard, is the fact that only the hard-core fans had even heard of Lepchenko last year. She cries out for attention now, after a stirring third-round defeat of 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone on Saturday, and as the details of her life unfold, we find a saga as American as it gets.

Lepchenko's first tennis hero was a woman named Iroda Tulyaganova -- logical enough, since that was the No. 1 player in her native Uzbekistan. She learned the game on a primitive landscape but convinced her father, Peter, that it might be worth a trip to America. In essence, they fled; the family was granted political asylum because of persecution in Uzbekistan over their Russian heritage, and they never returned home. Varvara became enamored with Allentown, Pa., the site of one of her first Challenger tournaments, and she has spent the last 10 years living there.

There's no question that her talent, while abundant in raw power, was honed under tutelage from the USTA, notably coaches Jorge Todero and Jay Gooding. Her base is the USTA training center at Flushing Meadows, site of the U.S. Open, and "she has put in some serious hard work," said Patrick McEnroe, the organization's head of player development, in an ESPN interview. "Our team has put in some serious work to help her."

Facing the formidable Schiavone, a clay-court master and crowd favorite, Lepchenko acknowledged that it was "her court. I knew she's not gonna give it for free." It wasn't decided until 8-6 in the third set, Lepchenko holding serve to close out the match after falling behind 0-40. "I believed in myself, and what I could do," she said later. "I'm a fighter. In tennis and in life."

Lepchenko owns a huge forehand, a shot she unleashed without fear in the most crucial moments against Schiavone. Now she draws another big hitter, Kvitova, who seems to have shaken her early-season doldrums. One would imagine it's the end of the line, but in a tournament as unpredictable as this French Open, it might be best to let one's imagination run wild.

Stephens certainly had some big dreams entering Sunday's match against Stosur. Regrettably moved to Court 1, due to play running long on Chatrier, Stephens found herself playing in a virtually empty arena in the fading daylight. Undaunted, she quickly realized that she had a forehand to match Stosur's vaunted power, and a compelling first set led to a pair of break points for Stephens at 5-5.

At times like this -- nervous youngster against hardened veteran on the biggest stage -- certain truths come forth. The young American's game got a bit tight, Stosur managed to hold, and Stephens was broken at love (including two double-faults) as the set concluded.

Stosur, who conquered a long-standing problem with her own shaky nerves in last year's U.S. Open (beating Serena for the championship), will be the one advancing to the quarterfinals. But Stephens leaves Paris with a growing legion of fans, including some very seasoned observers. The legendary Chris Evert may be biased -- Stephens once trained at the Chris Evert Academy in Florida -- but Evert had this to say (on ESPN2) of her protégé earlier in the tournament: "She has shown us her strength, her power and her touch. She's got every shot in the book, and she knows how to move on clay. Now we're seeing some consistency and control. She's the whole package right now."

These are days of renewed hope in the USTA offices, During that remarkable 10-0 run in the first round, some of the wins were downright shocking. Lauren Davis, a qualifer ranked 162nd in the world, dominated a player who had been terrorizing opponents all year, No. 32 Mona Barthel. Another hard-hitting German, Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki, proved no match for Bethanie-Mattek Sands. And Lepchenko, just getting warmed up, defeated former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in the second round.

Here's what struck me above all: As the tournament unfolded and most of these players encountered the specter of cold reality, only one of them, the great Serena, took a discouraging loss. There wasn't a bit of head-hanging elsewhere.

Davis and Mattek-Sands were beaten by countrywomen (Christina McHale and Stephens). McHale took a set from defending French Open champion Li Na before going down. Stephens and Irina Falconi lost to Stosur. Melanie Oudin was up against Sara Errani, who has won three clay-court titles this year. Alexa Glatch fell to 20th-ranked Flavia Pennetta, Vania King to No. 16 Dominika Cibulkova, Venus Williams to No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska.

If you're sitting in the USTA offices, you don't have a problem with any of those results. It should be interesting to see what Wimbledon has in store.

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