Lepchenko puts in full day’s work

It was another stroll on the clay for Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal at the French Open on Saturday. But it was a day of very hard work for newly nationalized American Varvara Lepchenko, who ran herself to a standstill en route to a terrific, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6 victory over former Roland Garros champ Francesca Schiavone.

Lepchenko had beaten Schiavone in three sets on Madrid’s blue clay three weeks ago, but this match was much tougher.

“I knew she was not going to give it for free,” said Lepchenko, the strain of the battle showing on her face. “I mean, it’s her court, you know. I had to work really hard, and I did.”

Lepchenko, who was granted US citizenship last year, went through the ringer in a dramatic third set. Schiavone took a 3-1 lead only to lose serve twice in succession to leave the American serving for the match at 5-4. But then Schiavone really dug in and made Lepchenko play two consecutive rallies, the first lasting 20 shots and the second 23. Gasping for breath, Varvara then served a double fault on break point and it was even again.

“Till the very end I didn’t know if I was going to win,” Lepchenko said. “But I kept believing in myself. Something deep inside of me was like, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’ ”

And she did. Lepchenko’s big weapon is her left-handed forehand, with which she can generate terrific pace. When she connects properly, not even a runner like Schiavone can chase down her crosscourt shot. In the last moments of this compelling struggle, Lepchenko uncorked enough of them to grab the victory that put her into the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time, alongside America’s other surprise package, Sloane Stephens.

“Sloane is playing well, but she’s a completely different player to me,” Lepchenko said. “I’m just a fighter in real life and on the tennis court.”

It’s been a long road from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Allentown, Pa., where Lepchenko’s family has made its home since 2001 since meeting a kind woman named Shari Butz. Butz had a big house and offered them a room when Varvara, accompanied by her father, Peter, had come to America to play in a USTA Challenger tournament.

“Me and my dad, we didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment so we were struggling, going from one place to another,” Lepchenko said. “And then Shari pretty much organized everything for me. She set up a club for me to practice in. All at no charge.”

Success did not come easily for Lepchenko, who has been playing on the tour since 2005. But now things are coming together, and her recent improvement has been startling.

“The girls are willing to listen to the best advice we have to offer,” said Patrick McEnroe, general manager of USTA player development, who has been working in conjunction with Lepchenko’s father and her two other coaches, Jorge Todero and Jay Gooding. “They are doing really well.”

Having just beaten a former French Open champion, Lepchenko now must face the current Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, who advanced with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 win over Russian Nina Bratchikova.

Facing the current Roland Garros title holder, Li Na, was a step too far for the third American survivor, Christina McHale, who lost 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 after playing an excellent first set. “I think I started off playing really well, but, in the end, I think her experience helped. I’ll just have to use this match and learn from it. I’m just going to take the positives and keep going.”

Having spent some time in Hong Kong as a child, McHale speaks some Mandarin. But that was of little use as she tried to fathom Li’s shrewd clay-court game. “I need to practice,” McHale said with a smile. She was speaking about the language, but she knows she will have to work on her tennis, too.

Sharapova, free of the need to play the departed Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, is making majestic progress through the draw. She demolished Shuai Peng, also from China, 6-2, 6-1 and has now lost only five games in three matches.

Later, former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, whose boyfriend, Rory McIlroy, failed to make the cut in the PGA’s Memorial tournament, crashed out 6-1, 6-7, 6-2 to the 23rd seed from Estonia, Kaia Kanepi.

Nadal needed 41 minutes to win a 6-1 first set against heavily built Argentine qualifier Eduardo Schwank, which reflected how many points, if not games, his determined opponent was winning. But in the end, Schwank ran out of ideas and Nadal won 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 and advanced to the final 16 to play another Argentine, Juan Monaco. Monaco moved on by overcoming young Canadian Milos Ranoic in five sets.

There were no signs of back problems for Andy Murray, who returned to his best form to score a straight-set win over Colombia’s Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. But local hero Paul-Henri Mathieu, who won that marathon against John Isner in the previous round, could not produce another miracle and lost 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 6-1 to No. 20 seed Marcel Granollers.