By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS, France - Roland Garros’ opening Sunday was fairly quiet, that was until the late afternoon when in the final two matches on court, American Bethanie Mattek-Sands came back from a break down in the second set to take out Arantxa Parra Santonja 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 and then Varvara Lepchenko shocked No. 18 Flavia Pennetta 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
Mattek-Sands has won a slew of Grand Slam first round matches, but Lepchenko had only won three coming into the contest, so to beat Pennetta on her favorite surface in a three setter was a career highlight.
The 25-year-old Lepchenko mixed and matched solid backhands and hard left-handed forehands to take down Pennetta and didn't get discouraged that in her first four match points, Pennetta cold coked four winners. On her last one, a tired-looking Italian double faulted.
"It was pretty tough at the end," Lepchenko said. "I just kept fighting and trying not to think about anything. But the thoughts were creeping in my mind, and I kept hanging in there."
It has been a long road to respectability for Lepchenko, a native of Uzbekistan who is currently ranked No. 85, just off her career high of No. 74 last November She has been trying to keep mentally fresh this year and after working at the USTA Training Center in Carson, Calif. in the off season on her fitness, she feels like she can last in three set matches.
All the hard work she did in the offseason didn’t really pay major dividends until Sunday, as she had failed to pass a second round on the tour in 2011. But she pushed world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in a tough straight-set loss last week in Brussels and that gave her a fair amount of self-belief.
"I've been working really hard for the past three, four months, and I just kept on fighting," she said. "I knew that I had good fundamentals that I built before the match. That pretty much gave me confidence."
Pennetta is just the second top 20 player that she has beaten, but Lepchenko earned every point. This year, she has been working at the USTA National Training Center East in Flushing Meadows, NY with the general manager of USTA Player Development, Patrick McEnroe, and coach Jorge Todero. They have put her through the ringer, but she finds it fun and can feel herself improving.
"I love the atmosphere, the team spirit that we have," said Lepchenko, who is privately coached by her father, Peter. "We play a lot of sets, especially against Patrick. They work me really hard in the morning. In the afternoon, I have to go and play sets and I'm completely dead. Patrick just takes advantage of it and runs me from one side to another. Then they stand in the back with Jorge and they're like, ‘Oh, I think she's tired.’"
Lepchenko has been a resident of the United States for the past 10 years and makes her home in Allentown, PA with her family. She is trying to complete the massive amount of paperwork it takes to apply for citizenship and is planning on working on it after Roland Garros. For a pro tennis player, writing down every locale you’ve visited outside of the country on the past six years is time-consuming. But she’s willing to do it, as she’s been itching to play Fed Cup for the U.S.
"I do wish with all of my heart to play for U.S. as a citizen," she said. "At the moment I'm not a citizen. I'm just a resident that's been living in States and growing up there and being supported by all the nation and all the people that help me out. So I consider myself as American, although I don't have a passport yet."
Mattek-Sands and Lepchenko will face off in the second round and while they have played each other before on green clay in Ponte Vedra Beach, it wasn’t when they were in such good form.
"Bethanie has worked really hard and she's playing well, and I think a lot of pressure on her other than me," Lepchenko said. "I'll just go out and enjoy my tennis."
Mattek-Sands, who is at her career high ranking of No. 36, added: "Varvara is tough. She's lefty; she really has funky strokes; she puts a lot of spin on the ball. I am sticking to my core. Whoever it is, I'm pretty much playing the same way."