Unlikely trio in French Open third round
PARIS -- There were 12 American women entered in the main draw of the French Open. Ten advanced to the second round but only three remain moving into the third round.
If the average tennis fan were given this scenario heading into Roland Garros, and then asked to name the trio of Americans left standing, chances are they would not have come up with this list: Sloane Stephens. Christina McHale. And Varvara Lepchenko.
Lepchenko pulled off the biggest second-round win Thursday, defeating No. 19-seeded and former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4. Lepchenko, who has never reached the third round of a Grand Slam before, seemed stunned, then overwhelmed, after she won. She shook hands with Jankovic, walked a few steps while putting her head in her hands, and then went to the middle of the net to kiss the white tape.
"I couldn't believe the match was over," Lepchenko said. "I was still in the moment. I think I was able to play another couple of games, so that's why I was pretty shocked. At the same time I was pretty happy, because this is the first time I'm through the second round at a Grand Slam. It's very special to me, and I was really excited."
McHale moved into her first Grand Slam third round by defeating fellow American Lauren Davis, 6-1, 6-3. She was much less emotional after her win, which fits her subdued personality.
"I can relax a little bit now and enjoy this," McHale said. "It's the first time I am in the third round here, so I'm really excited."
Lepchenko and McHale will face stern tests in their next matches, facing the last two French Open champions. Lepchenko will play the No. 14 seed Francesca Schiavone, who won at Roland Garros in 2010. McHale gets last year's winner, seventh-seeded Li Na.
Stephens, who made it into the third round on Wednesday, will play unseeded Mathilde Johansson of France on Court Philippe Chatrier on Friday. Stephens advanced by defeating American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-1, 6-1, on Wednesday.
The American survivors are an interesting group. Stephens, 19, and McHale, 20, are part of the new wave of younger American players, looking to make their mark. They've been stars of the U.S. junior system and have been making the transition from tennis minor leagues to the majors.
Lepchenko, 26, has taken a longer and more winding path. She is a U.S. immigrant, moving from her native Uzbekistan to Allentown, Pa., with her father, Peter, and sister, Jane, in 2002. Her mother, Larisa, joined them in 2006. The family was granted political asylum because of persecution in Uzbekistan over their Russian heritage. Lepchenko became an American citizen in 2007.
None of the three has made more than $1 million in their careers. And none has won a tournament of significant note -- yet.
But all of them have a chance to represent the U.S. in the upcoming London Olympics. The top four ranked U.S. women, those who have enough points to be better than No. 60 in the world (the historical working cutoff), should go. Coming into the French, they were Serena Williams (No. 5), McHale (No. 36), Venus Williams (No. 53) and Vania King (57). But Lepchenko (63) was just on the outside.
The unlikely winners -- and losers -- at the French Open could shake things up. Serena is safe, even though she lost in the first round. McHale is definitely in because she made the second round and is still playing. Venus could be on the bubble, as she was ousted in the second round.
Lepchenko, with her second-round win, moved ahead of King by two ranking points, into fourth place, according to the WTA. More changes could be coming, if Stephens wins her third-round match, she will move ahead of Lepchenko and Williams. Both Lepchenko and Stephens would have to reach the quarterfinals in order to jump ahead of Williams.
Olympics talk is everywhere, from the ladies' locker room to questions from journalists. Lepchenko is trying to insulate herself from it, so she can stay focused on the French Open. McHale isn't openly pondering it either.
"Of course it's important [to make the Olympic team], but I keep saying to myself it's not important because I have to get away from those thoughts somehow," Lepchenko said. "Because it's going to obviously be in my way when I'm playing. I don't want to be standing on the tennis court and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, if I win this match I'll be qualified to play the Olympics.'
"It's everybody's dream. I just try to put it away, put it aside for now, focus on the tennis, focus on my matches. If God lets me win and play at the Olympics, it will be amazing, of course."
McHale, Stephens and Lepchenko are well-acquainted, making this shared experience even sweeter. McHale and Stephens have been close friends for a while, and Lepchenko practices with McHale at the USTA's development center in New York City.
"It's really nice to have other Americans doing well, as well," McHale said. "So just hope we all keep it going."
The three are playing with confidence, using a similar playbook. They're consistent from the baseline, come in to close points out at the net when necessary and, right now, are swimming in uncharted territory being this deep in a Grand Slam.
Stephens and McHale both stand 5 feet 7 inches, and are righties with two-handed backhands. Lepchenko is a 5-11 lefty, who hits forehands with a lot of heavy, penetrating spin.
Jankovic could not deal with the consistency of Lepchenko's game, as she forced uncomfortable court positions. Lepchenko always looked to close in, at times playing four big steps inside the baseline to put more pressure on Jankovic.
McHale drove the smaller Davis back behind the baseline, imposing her will. Stephens overwhelmed Mattek-Sands in every way in her second-round match. Stephens, the hottest of the three coming in on clay, has only lost nine games over her first two French Open matches.
"The last three tournaments have been good for me and I've been playing well," Stephens said. "As you win more matches and you build confidence, it kind of takes you through the whole year. I want to keep it going and I'm just trying to keep having fun."
And, as the three Americans have discovered, it can be a whole lot of fun to play on red clay when you're winning.