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Friday, June 15, 2012
Varvara Lepchenko an all-American success

By Julia Savacool
(Video by Hannah Storm/Brainstormin Productions)

In Uzbekistan in the 1990s, salaries hovered around $20 a month and social unrest dominated daily life. Growing up in the capital city of Tashkent, a successful career as a professional tennis player seemed like a very, very distant dream for young Varvara Lepchenko.

Although her mother was an accountant with a degree in mathematics and her father was an engineer, life in the former Soviet republic was anything but easy. The country struggled economically, and Lepchenko, who had picked up the game of tennis at the age of 7 and showed signs of talent almost instantly, saw no way for her career to advance without the proper facilities and training programs that other young players received in countries like the U.S.

And so in 2001, when her father, Peter, brought the 15-year-old Lepchenko and her sister, Jane, to Florida to play in a junior tournament, they never left. The family applied for political asylum, gaining access to green cards that allowed father and daughters to remain in the U.S. while their appeal for citizenship was reviewed. Lepchenko's mother, Larisa, however, was stuck in Uzbekistan and was not allowed to leave the country. For more than four years, Lepchenko spoke with her mother only by phone, trying to fill her in on all the details of a teenager's life that she was missing.

"It was hard, but it was the only way," Lepchenko said. "When there are no other choices, you learn to adapt." Eventually, her mother was granted permission to join the family in the U.S.

Life in America was also full of challenges, though none as great as she'd faced in Uzbekistan.

"Here, the people were nice to me," Lepchenko said. "They wanted to help. In Uzbekistan, everything was a struggle."

Because of her father's limited English, Lepchenko was responsible for making her own arrangements to continue playing tennis (she had taken basic English in school). It didn't always go smoothly -- the worst was trying to understand what people were saying during phone conversations -- but Lepchenko's fear of leaping into a foreign culture was overshadowed by her desire to play the game.

Embracing the adventure

With minimal income -- Lepchenko's father acted as her coach, leaving little time for other jobs -- the family frequently could not afford an apartment. They stayed with friends of friends, or relied on the kindness of people in the tennis world to let them borrow a room in their homes for a while. Eventually, a woman affiliated with a junior tournament in Allentown, Pa., invited Lepchenko to stay with her, rent-free.

"She was like a second mother to me," Lepchenko said.

She has lived in Allentown ever since, even after her pro winnings allowed her to move into her own apartment.

In 2007, Lepchenko began representing the U.S. in tournaments. Green card restrictions made certain international tournaments off-limits, but her opportunities to play against the best helped her elevate her game. Though clearly talented, she frequently dropped out in early rounds.

"I worked hard, but I had a lot to learn still," she said. "I believed I could do it, but the results were not coming as fast as I wanted."

In September 2011, Lepchenko became an American citizen, more than a decade after leaving Uzbekistan for a shot at a better life.

"It was a new start for me," she said. "Because now I had a chance to do something great. Now I can say America is my home. I have somewhere that I belong."

Remember this name

Maybe it's no coincidence that shortly after receiving citizenship, Lepchenko's tennis started improving.

"I had been working with new coaches, harder than I ever have," she said.

Her serve got sharper, her returns were stronger. Lepchenko looked to be heading for a breakthrough season in 2012, but her first tournament, the Australian Open, was a flop, as she got knocked out in the first round.

"I was training hard, but I needed more experience with the other players," she said. "Plus, I was still getting used to my new coaches. I felt like I was improving -- it was just about needing a little more time for everything to come together."

So she went back to work, training relentlessly at her new home court in Flushing, N.Y., as part of the USTA Player Development program at the site of the U.S. Open. At the tournament in Madrid, her efforts began to pay off, as she reached the quarterfinals and improved her world ranking to 59, at the time her highest ever.

Then came the French Open. After wins in the first two rounds, Lepchenko suddenly found herself ahead in the third round -- completely new territory -- against Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 champion.

"I did not think I would get this far," Lepchenko admitted. "At first I thought, OK, this will be over very fast. Then we started to play, and I changed to think, OK, you have to fight for this win."

"Fight" is something Lepchenko has done a lot of -- in tennis and in life.

"It's how I have gotten to where I am in life," she said. "Nothing has come easy. There were times when I wanted to give up, but then that little voice in my head says, 'No, you can't give up now. You are so close.' I believe if you want it enough, and work hard for it, you can achieve almost anything."

Lepchenko went on to upset Schiavone in three sets, making her the last American left standing in the tournament (she would go on to lose to Petra Kvitova in the fourth round). It also improved her world ranking to 52, and put her in strong running for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

"To make this team, it would mean everything," Lepchenko said. "I will know in the next few weeks if I am going to the Olympics. It scares me to think about it! Every athlete dreams about that moment when she can represent her country. It would be such an honor to play for the U.S."