At 35 years old, Varvara Lepchenko is showing that she has plenty more to give. The No.4 seed at the LTP Women's Open captured the biggest title of her two-decade career with a 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4 triumph over Jamie Loeb in an all-American final at the inaugural WTA 125 event, after coming from a break down in the deciding set.
Afterwards, Lepchenko opened up about how she has rejuvenated her career from the brink of retirement thanks to new coach Pere Riba and an inspirational hitting session with Serena Williams.
"I was married, and then right before Covid, I got divorced," Lepchenko said. "I was thinking before Covid and my divorce to retire, start a family, start a new life. But when that didn't happen, the only thing that kept me alive was tennis. Tennis was the only thing that kept me happy. So I went back to playing, and I discovered a new passion and how much this game gave me. No matter what happens outside of tennis, I'll always have that passion and that game. That's where everything started as a little girl, since I was six years old. And that's something no one can take away from me."
Following the Covid shutdown, Lepchenko also restarted her collaboration with former ATP World No.65 Riba, with whom she had worked two years previously before disagreements over where to be based ended their partnership. This time round, Riba was willing to relocate to the US.
"We speak the same language and I trust him," said Lepchenko. "He understands my feelings and my game. I think we are similar in game style as well. I used to think that the key to my winning was the player, yourself. But what I'm finding out lately is that yes, you have to be your own person, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses, you have to recognise these things yourself. But it's a huge difference if you have someone who can bring so much to your game, and luckily I was able to find that coach."
After Lepchenko and Riba moved to Florida, she got a call from another old friend.
"Serena invited me to practice with her and we started hitting," said Lepchenko. "She gave me some confidence, I would say. She's a great friend and she encouraged me to keep going. Just seeing that I could hit with her and seeing her play on the big stages when she's older than me - that inspired me as well, to keep going and keep dreaming big."
Lepchenko played her first pro match in 2000, and made her WTA main draw debut at Tashkent a year later, losing in the first round to Wynne Prakusya. She went on to reach a career high of World No.19 in October 2012 and was runner-up to Karolina Pliskova at Seoul 2014, the only WTA final of her career to date.
But in that time, Lepchenko's biggest trophies were a trio of ITF W75/W80 titles - College Park 2006, Phoenix 2010 and Macon 2018. Now ranked World No.152, she had not been inside the Top 100 since July 2018.
This year, Lepchenko's form has ticked upwards with Riba by her side. She qualified for Roland Garros in June and upset Zhang Shuai in the first round for her first Grand Slam main draw win since Wimbledon 2017. But following that, she was dealt a blow when Riba tested positive for Covid-19 and was unable to travel with her.
This week in Charleston was the first that Riba has been able to accompany Lepchenko again. The effect was clear as she stormed into the final without dropping a set, defeating Carol Zhao, Tori Kinard and Hanna Chang before upsetting No.2 seed Lauren Davis 7-5, 6-3 in the semifinals.
The title match would be a more gruelling affair. Clocking in at two hours and 59 minutes, it was Lepchenko's second marathon around the three-hour mark in as many weeks - just 12 days previously, she had bested Marina Melnikova 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 in three hours and eight minutes in the first round of Gdynia.
Against World No.229 Loeb, who was playing the biggest final of her career to date, Lepchenko opted to grind her more aggressive opponent down for much of the match. This paid off in the first set, which Lepchenko eventually sealed in a tiebreak despite failing to serve it out twice, but seemed like backfiring as Loeb hit back to take the second set and a 3-1 lead in the decider.
University of North Carolina alumna Loeb, 26, had dropped just one set en route to the final, overcoming Katrina Scott 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 in the second round. The 2015 NCAA singles champion impressed with her willingness to change direction and go for down-the-line winners, a tactic that saw her dominate the middle passage of play. But Loeb was hindered by 10 double faults and a 48% first serve percentage compared to Lepchenko's 72%.
With her back to the wall, Lepchenko also upped her aggression to turn the third set around. She would win five of the last six games thanks to significantly bolder shot selection in the home stretch, with her heavy forehand doing particular damage to come through a crucial five-deuce hold for 4-3 and her dropshot proving key as she made her way to 5-4.
In the final game, Loeb's errors would let her down to concede the break, with a netted forehand sealing victory on Lepchenko's second championship point. Nonetheless, it was a breakthrough week for Loeb, who scored straight-sets wins over Whitney Osuigwe, Liang En-Shuo and Kateryna Bondarenko to make her first WTA 125 final.
Other noteworthy performances included Scott's stunning 6-0, 6-3 upset of No.1 seed Madison Brengle in the first round. It was a first Top 100 win for the 17-year-old World No.384, who had previously made waves by reaching the second round of the 2020 US Open and stretching Amanda Anisimova to three sets there.
The tournament also saw the return to action of former World No.46 Tatjana Maria following her second maternity leave. The German gave birth to daughter Cecilia, a sister for Charlotte, in April. Maria, 33, lost 6-2, 6-4 to Han Na-Lae in the first round.
Another mother-of-two, Bondarenko, got back on the right track with a semifinal run. The Ukrainian upset No.3 seed Maddison Inglis 6-3, 6-2 in the second round and bested Emma Navarro 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals to mark the first time she has scored three consecutive wins at any level since Eastbourne 2018.
The doubles title was captured by the unseeded Liang and Rebecca Marino, who triumphed 5-7, 7-5, [10-7] over No.1 seeds Erin Routliffe and Aldila Sutjiadi in the final. It was the first time the Chinese Taipei-Canadian pair had played together, and the biggest doubles title for both. Liang, 20, also reached the singles quarterfinals before falling to Loeb, while Marino, 30, lost in the second round to Davis.
Interview by Patrick Hieber, LTP