By Alana Mitchelson
(January 17, 2014) MELBOURNE – Varvara Lepchenko was left feeling very weak and light-headed after losing her second round Australian Open singles match on Thursday in the blistering 111 degree heat. She spent an hour after the match lying down in the locker room before making a media appearance, admittedly still feeling a little dazed and dizzy.
We caught up with Lepchenko the following day to see how she has been holding up and heard about her feelings toward the Extreme Heat Policy.
We talk tennis, citizenship, career goals and… figure skating.
Alana Mitchelson: Do you think you were fully recovered from yesterday to play doubles today?
Varvara Lepchenko: No, I think it’s too soon. Unfortunately, I don’t know why our organisers don’t look into this kind of thing. They make it worse for you rather than accommodating for you and giving you the best chance. I’m a little bit better today but I’m a little bit under the weather.
AM: Yeah, you made a few comments about the Extreme Heat Policy yesterday.
VL: Well I think, first of all, it’s already been a couple of days like this and they only started doing something about it when people started talking about it. They shouldn’t be waiting for people to start talking. Even though there are some doctors saying this is not dangerous, it is dangerous for the players. I see a lot of players struggling, and even just for the fans to sit around and watch, it’s hard. I mean, can you imagine us being down on the court in I don’t know how many degrees more. Nobody even shows up and we’re running in the heat all the time under the sun, so it’s definitely one of those things that the organizers of the tournament and the committee need to address and have meetings to know what exact temperature it is unbearable to play under.
This was very unfortunate because I had to go through this two days in a row and even today was the third day all up really and it’s not going to hurt anybody to start a little bit later in the afternoon or earlier in the morning to avoid peak heat.
AM: What did you do after you left Melbourne Park yesterday?
VL: I just rested up and I had ice all over my body, trying to stay really cold. I was pretty much laying down the whole time and didn’t do anything because I was just too hot. I didn’t sleep so well, you know what I mean? It was tough.
AM: Did you find it hard to cool down?
VL: It was really hard because I took an ice bath right after the match and it wasn’t easy to stay cold and keep my temperature down. It was only good for a couple of hours and then I started feeling like I was getting hot again during the night.
AM: When you came into the press conference yesterday, you said you still felt quite dizzy and that was an hour after your match. How long did it take for that feeling to pass?
VL: Yeah, I had a headache all day long yesterday and I was kind of worried about what was going to happen to me the next day, if I was going to wake up with the same headache as I had yesterday. Thankfully my body recovered a little bit so that I was able to perform today but it’s definitely something that pushes you all the way to the edge, testing your body limits when it shouldn’t be that way. It should be a test of your physical ability, not health wise of how well you can withstand the heat. It’s more about the medical preparation of your body for how long people can stay in the sun really and how many degrees it can get to and you still being able to compete.
AM: If we wind back the clock a fair bit now, I was wondering how you were first introduced to tennis?
VL: Well back in Uzbekistan, the tennis club was only a five minute walk away from our apartment building and that’s how I started. My dad brought me there and gave me a tennis racquet and ball. All I wanted to do was obviously just go and play with the other kids but he promised me if I hit so many shots against the wall, he would give me bubble gum which was a luxury for me at the time. So that’s how I pretty much started.
AM: And your father coaches you. Is it difficult trying to maintain a professional relationship with your father?
VL: Definitely, it’s very hard to have this kind of a relationship and we try to mix it up. He’s not coaching me full-time, I’m training with other coaches, so we try to mix it up a little bit to maintain our father-daughter relationship as well. But at the same time, there’s a lot of good things that come out of it. No one will work with you with as much heart as your father. You can definitely feel it. Until I can find another coach who can put all of that heart into coaching me then I’ll stick with my dad.
AM: Around last summer, you reached a career-high ranking of 19. What is it like when you best your own ranking record?
VL: It’s definitely one of those things that you’re just working and working on, and you don’t really think about the ranking at that point. You just keep working hard and then you’re all of a sudden at this level and you’re like ‘wow, how did this happen?’, you know, and then you just sit down and think ‘oh yeah, I’ve been working really hard in both the off season and this season.
AM: A couple of years ago, you upset former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic. Not many players can say they have beaten her. What do you remember about how you felt in that moment?
VL: Yeah, it’s definitely one of those amazing moments when you beat someone you kind of look up to. You’ve seen them succeeding in a lot of tournaments and then, all of a sudden, it’s you who’s beaten them. I just battled through that match and didn’t think about anything else. And when I won I was really excited about it.
AM: Of all the matches you’ve played in your career so far, which one has been your favourite?
VL: I would definitely look back and say round of 32 in the French Open 2012 against Francesca Schiavone. I was down in that match and I came back and won.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about your background. You only just became a US citizen a few years ago.
VL: Well, it wasn’t the easiest road to where I am right now. For many years, I was playing strictly Challengers because I couldn’t travel because I didn’t have any documents and I was waiting for my status to clear in the United States. Just waiting and waiting, and my tennis level was pretty much the same because you can’t really go far playing Challengers. Once I’d gotten my documents in November 2011, I started travelling more and started to improve my tennis a lot more.
It wasn’t the easiest time obviously, and I’m just grateful to be where I am right now, just because I started out playing tennis travelling and sleeping in the car during the early days and not being able to afford a hotel and other things. A lot of determination and just being lucky to have made it to where I am now from where I’ve been, not seeing my mum for four years. This kind of thing makes you tougher. Once I’d gotten the freedom of moving and playing the bigger tournaments, competing against tougher opponents and playing better tennis, I started seeing where my tennis could improve and what I can do better.
AM: So why the US?
VL: I came to the US to play Junior tournaments. I was playing some Challengers there and then I decided to play Orange Bowl. I’d entered into the event and my federation basically just pulled me out of the tournament because they needed to give approval to the US federation and they said that they didn’t want me to play.
That was a key moment for me being in the US who were not going to stop anybody from playing. There were so many opportunities for me there. Even though it wasn’t the easiest way, I was able to travel by car with my dad and sometimes we would get some housing and stay with some friends and some people would help us out with accommodation. That’s pretty much how we fell in love with USA and so we decided to stay there. I’ve been there for about 12 years now.
AM: You’ve said in a previous interview that you enjoy watching figure skating. Do you notice any similarities between figure skating and tennis?
VL: No, there’s not really much. I just like how the figure skaters move on the ice and their nice outfits. They have to do these really difficult lifts and they’re so fast. They’re under so much pressure and I think this is what I like because it’s one performance. You don’t get another chance and it’s really hard to put everything into one performance.
AM: Have you ever tried skating yourself?
VL: I know how to ice skate but I don’t know how to do all the jumps or all the little tricks they do. There’s no way I can do that. I’ve never tried and it’s too hard because I can’t even skate in a circle.
AM: Yeah, let’s try to avoid any injuries.
AM: And I believe you’re a fan of karaoke as well?
VL: Oh yeah, I love karaoke. You don’t want to hear me sing though, I’m definitely one of the worst singers. But it just releases that energy and you feel free and it’s fun. I haven’t done that in a while but I prefer to go in a group. I need someone there to push me but once I start it’s hard to stop me, but it’s definitely one of the things I love to do.
AM: Back to talking tennis, what are some essential items you can’t live without having at court side during a match?
VL: I definitely need a towel, my drinks and my gels. I need my ice towel (laughs), especially for this tournament. I need to have a hat, I can’t play without a hat otherwise I just feel uncomfortable. Oh, and I always need to have new grips for my racquets – just in case.
AM: Do you feel the standard of women’s tennis has lifted dramatically since Serena Williams has come along?
VL: Yeah, definitely. She’s just such a great champion and she took the game to the next level. I think everybody is trying to play more aggressive – doing bigger serves and just physically better. I think she and Venus set such a huge example of what your level has to be to be one of the best players. You used to get players who didn’t hit the ball hard enough and now you never get that. It’s all about the speed, the power, the agility and the stamina. She’s been taking tennis to another level and everybody’s looking up to her.
AM: You played doubles this morning. What aspects of the doubles game do you like that you don’t necessarily get to experience in singles?
VL: I think what I like about doubles is that it’s a lot less pressure. You can enjoy it a lot more. I don’t put a lot of responsibility on myself, I just try to play the best that I can. So I think I like that I relax a lot more. It’s interesting, you have to have a really good reaction so it tests your reflexes. It’s almost like playing a chess game. You really have to think about what you have to do in order to win a match or a game. It’s interesting to have this combination of the court and tactics, it’s good for the game.
AM: What other tournaments do you have lined up for the summer?
VL: At the moment I’m signed up for Pattaya, Thailand, and this is what I’m looking forward to.
AM: What are your goals for this year?
VL: I really want to be seeded at my next Grand Slam. This is my goal.
AM: More generally speaking, where do you hope to take your game?
VL: Well, I would be a fool if I said I didn’t want to be up there with the top players because I’ve really got the game and I just need to pull a few things together. It’s just a matter of knowing that if I can pull it together, I can take my game to who knows where.
AM: Thank you for giving up so much of your time.
VL: No problem, thank you. Have a good day.
Alana Mitchelson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist covering the Australian Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her tournament updates on Twitter @TennisNewsTPN and read her personal website.