By Joshua Rey, special to USTA.com
MIDLAND, Mich. – The numbers were stacked against Anna Tatishvili as she opened play at the 2011 Dow Corning Tennis Classic on Stadium Court. An unheralded, unseeded player from the Republic of Georgia, Tatishvili was up against top-seeded American Varvara Lepchenko, who finished 2010 by winning 15 straight matches on the USTA Pro Circuit.
Tatishvili gave up five inches, 25 pounds and 54 spots on the WTA Tour rankings to the lefty Lepchenko. Playing on a slick indoor surface that is supposed to favor stronger players, Lepchenko entered Tuesday’s match with a 2-0 lifetime record against Tatishvili.
But matches aren’t played on paper; they’re played between the lines. Flattening her groundstrokes much deeper than her 5-foot-6 frame suggested she could, Tatishvili knocked off the No. 1 seed 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-4.
"I had to play very focused, especially on the returns," said Tatishvili, who resides and trains in Boca Raton, Fla. "She’s a lefty and her slice serve you can’t really hit back flat. I had to really look at the ball and make her play every point."
After moving her opponent side to side with punishing returns, the Georgian broke for a 5-4 first-set lead when Lepchenko double-faulted.
But Tatishvili doubled twice in the subsequent game to concede the break back to Lepchenko, who will become an American citizen in August after migrating to the U.S. a decade ago.
"On my kick serves, I got a little tight so the ball flew on me," said Tatishvili, who finished with seven double faults. "I need to just think about the routine I do every single day: make 2,000 serves."
Moments after she served for a one-set lead, Tatishvili misfired long on consecutive points in the tiebreak to concede the first set to Lepchenko.
"It’s tennis and it happens," said Tatishvili, 21. "That’s why it’s two-out-of-three. I refocused and I tried to make less errors. On the important points, I wanted to be steady."
Lepchenko, 24, could not maintain her momentum in the second set as Tatishvili broke serve in each of the American’s first three service games. Despite service troubles of her own, Tatishvili forced a final set by holding at love.
The 129th-ranked Tatishvili opened up a 3-0 third-set lead, and then earned two match points at 5-3 after hitting the shot of the match. Lepchenko kicked a spin serve into the far corner of the Ad-court, pushing Tatishvili into the side curtains. The Georgian, however, responded with an acute angle of her own: carving a cross-court backhand return winner that crashed into the opposite curtains.
Lepchenko managed to save both match points and hold serve, forcing Tatishvili to clinch the win on her own racquet. When Tatishvili hit a second-serve about three feet long to open the 10th game, a service break appeared likely.
But Lepchenko’s comeback was not to be as Tatishvili recomposed herself, earning a third match point with a crosscourt forehand winner. She secured her first-ever win over the 75th-ranked Lepchenko when the lefty let loose on a backhand long.
"On the match points at 5-3 she played well," said Tatishvili. "It’s not like I played bad or I choked or anything. There was nothing I could do. But in the last game of the third set, I just said, ‘You have to really focus on your serve.’"
Lepchenko’s loss marked the start of a difficult day for Americans at the Dow Corning Tennis Classic. Shelby Rogers, Christina McHale and Jamie Hampton each fell in the first round. Two-time singles finalist Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic handed Hampton a 7-5, 6-4 loss in Tuesday’s feature singles match.
Good news for the red, white and blue came in the form of USTA.com blogger Irina Falconi. The former Georgia Tech standout ensured herself two more days of writing (and competing) by breaking Katie O’Brien seven straight times in a 7-5, 6-2 singles victory. Falconi, 20, also teamed with countrywoman Alison Riske to defeat Brittany Augustine and Alexandra Mueller in doubles.
While four Americans fell in the main draw on Tuesday, four former U.S. Fed Cup team members swept the qualifying. Ahsha Rolle and Alexa Glatch joined 1998 Midland champion Alexandra Stevenson and 34-year-old Mashona Washington as the qualifying quartet.
Washington, who was born in nearby Flint, Mich., first played the Midland qualifying event in 1993. Back then, the tournament was only in its fifth year on the USTA Pro Circuit and it featured just a quarter of its present-day purse of $100,000.
Now in the Dow Corning Tennis Classic main draw for the 10th time, Washington will be wishing for a repeat performance of 2002, when she reached the singles final before falling to Australian Open runner-up Na Li.
After her mother, father and sister watched her advance through the qualifying draw, Washington was rewarded with a first-round match against a player young enough to be her daughter: 15-year-old wild card Victoria Duval.
"I’ve probably played this tournament more than anybody," said Washington, who defeated Mueller 7-6(4), 6-3 in the final round of qualifying. "I’m very happy because this lets me know that I didn’t need a wild card. At the same time, I could have saved myself three matches and probably 100 miles on my legs (laughs)."
The first round resumes on Wednesday with 11 singles matches, highlighted by the fast-rising Riske taking on No. 7 seed Ksenia Pervak of Russia in the feature singles match at 7 p.m. on Stadium Court. Pervak won the 2009 Australian Open junior title, but should be tested against Riske, who captured three consecutive ITF titles in Europe last fall.
Following that contest, Hampton and Tatishvili will team up to take on Canadians Rebecca Marino and Marie-Eve Pelletier in the feature doubles match.
Marino will also play her first-round singles match on Wednesday against Glatch. With Lepchenko’s loss, the 20-year-old from Vancouver has emerged as a tournament favorite.
At 6-feet-tall, the second-seeded Marino is quickly becoming one of the biggest hitters in women’s tennis, smoking serves and forehands without inhibition. She arrives in Midland after a second-round appearance at the Australian Open, where she pushed French Open champion Francesca Schiavone before falling 9-7 in the third set.
Marino is one of six seeded singles players in action during Wednesday’s day session, including No. 5 seed Sorana Cirstea of Romania. Still only 20 years old, Cirstea has posted wins over current Top 10 players Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Schiavone.
Cirstea will meet wild card Jessica Pegula in the fourth match on Court 5.
Admission to the Dow Corning Tennis Classic is free until the 7 p.m. feature session. General admission tickets to see Riske vs. Pervak and Hampton/Tatishvili vs. Marino/Pelletier cost $12 for adults and $8 for children.
Dow Corning Tennis Classic
Midland Community Tennis Center
Tuesday, February 8 – RESULTS
Singles – First round
Anna Tatishvili (Georgia) def.  Varvara Lepchenko (United States) 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-4
Lucie Hradecka (Czech Republic) def. Jamie Hampton (United States) 7-5, 6-4
Sabine Lisicki (Germany) def. [WC] Shelby Rogers (United States) 6-1, 6-3
Anastasia Pivovarova (Russia) def. Christina McHale (United States) 3-6, 6-2, 6-3
Irina Falconi (United States) def. Katie O’Brien (Great Britain) 7-5, 6-2
Doubles – First round
Gabriela Dabrowski (Canada) and Whitney Jones (United States) def. [WC] Kelli Close (United States) and Daniella Patton (Dominican Republic) 6-0, 6-2
Irina Falconi and Alison Riske (United States) def. Brittany Augustine and Alexandra Mueller (United States) 6-1, 3-6, [10-3]
 Ksenia Pervak (Russia) and Ipek Senoglu (Turkey) def. Christina Fusano and Sanaz Marand (United States) 4-6, 6-4, [10-7]
 Sarah Borwell (Great Britain) and Courtney Nagle (United States) def. Elizabeth Lumpkin and Story Tweedie-Yates (United States) 7-5, 6-4
Qualifying Singles – Final round
 Mashona Washington (United States) def. Alexandra Mueller (United States) 7-6(4), 6-3
 Ahsha Rolle (United States) def.  Lena Litvak (United States) 6-4, 6-2
 Alexandra Stevenson (United States) def.  Marina Erakovic (New Zealand) 6-2, 6-4
 Alexa Glatch (United States) def.  Amanda Fink (United States) 6-2, 6-2
Wednesday, February 9 – SCHEDULE
Stadium Court – starting at 10 a.m.
[WC] Brittany Augustine (United States) vs.  Anne Keothavong (Great Britain)
 Evgeniya Rodina (Russia) vs. [Q] Ahsha Rolle (United States)
[Q] Mashona Washington (United States) vs. [WC] Victoria Duval (United States)
 Marina Erakovic (New Zealand) and Lucie Hradecka (Czech Republic) vs. Beatrice Capra and CoCo Vandeweghe (United States)
Stadium Court – starting at 7 p.m.
Alison Riske (United States) vs.  Ksenia Pervak (Russia)
Jamie Hampton (United States) and Anna Tatishvili (Georgia) vs. Rebecca Marino and Marie-Eve Pelletier (Canada)
Court 5 – starting at 10 a.m.
Michelle Larcher de Brito (Portugal) vs. Julie Coin (France)
Aleksandra Wozniak (Canada) vs.  Magdalena Rybarikova (Slovakia)
[Q] Alexa Glatch (United States) vs.  Rebecca Marino (Canada)
 Sorana Cirstea (Romania) vs. [WC] Jessica Pegula (United States)
Court 3 – starting at 10 a.m.
Stephanie Foretz-Gacon (France) vs. Heather Watson (Great Britain)
 CoCo Vandeweghe (United States) vs. [Q] Alexandra Stevenson (United States)
Madison Brengle (United States) vs. Olga Savchuk (Ukraine)