American Dream: An Interview with Varvara Lepchenko
This past March, at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, I chatted with Varvara Lepchenko. Six months earlier, the Uzbekistan-born Lepchenko had become an American citizen. We spoke about her upbringing, moving to the United States as a teenager, and the challenges of pursuing a professional tennis career.
Justin diFeliciantonio: When did you start playing?
Varvara Lepchenko: I started when I was seven or eight years old at the local club [in Uzbekistan]. It was like five minutes walk from my apartment. My dad used to practice there and then he brought me.
I was very energetic. [Before starting to play, my parents] didn’t know where to put me, because I was running around all over the place, running around the apartment. Just so much energy. So they were like, She needs to be in some sport. And then they put me there, and it was exciting. I was spending whole days at the club. I was going crazy. [Laughing] I started hitting against the wall, and then hit with other kids. I loved the game.
JD: So it was always fun growing up?
VL: Well, yeah. But not always, because I would push myself. It was hard work. But when you sit down and think, Well, gee, could I be able to go to the office and sit there from 8 to 5? Then it’s becoming a lot more fun. It’s becoming a lot more fun. [Laughing]
JD: Really? How old were you when you were thinking that?
VL: I was pretty young. 14? It was all fun up ‘till like 14, when you have to start playing with players who are older and a lot better than you, and you start losing to them. And you’re thinking, What’s going on? What’s happening? Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do. All of a sudden, you’re not dominating anymore. So you go out there and you have to work a lot harder. And it starts becoming not as fun. But then—my dad used to always tell me, “Would you ever work in construction and be outside in the sun all day building houses?”
JD: Did you go to school regularly? Were you home schooled?
VL: I finished high school. Not here. I graduated through the exams. I had to do home schooling. At that time we were struggling with money, but my mom always wanted me to finish high school. So I studied on my own for the basic exams. She didn’t want me to play professionally.
JD: So your dad wanted you to play tennis, but your mom not so much?
VL: Yeah, my mom is not athletic. And she never played any sports. She’s not into any sports. She loves watching. She loves the atmosphere. But she always wanted me to go to college. I think it’s every mom’s dream for their kids to finish high school, go to college, get an education.
JD: Were there ever tensions between your parents about your aspirations?
VL: Maybe there were some arguments, but not to the point where they were screaming at each other or breaking stuff. But my dad was always the head of the family. He was making the big decisions for us back in Uzbekistan and here [in the U.S.]. He knew he was doing it just to make our lives better. And he knew that I had so much potential and that I could make it.
JD: How did you end up moving from Uzbekistan to Pennsylvania?
VL: I moved to Florida [from Uzbekistan] in 2001. I was 15. I was playing the Orange Bowl at the time. My dad had a friend who was renting an apartment in Sunny Isle, which is a Russian-speaking community. And we were practicing down there. Because I was so young, I couldn’t play as many professional tournaments. So I was spending a lot of time practicing in Florida. But then, when I turned 18, we started traveling a lot [to play tournaments], almost nonstop on the road. And that year, we decided to leave the apartment and give up having a residence in Florida, because it’s not the best conditions. Practicing in the heat and humidity all year round, you’re just going to kill yourself! [Laughing]. Plus, a lot of times in the year, it’s raining. We were always looking for something that was close to the climate that we were used to [in Uzbekistan]. So when we came to Pennsylvania, with all the outdoors and the mountains and everything, we were like, Ok, this is probably the best place.
But the biggest reason [we moved to Allentown] was that I was playing a tennis tournament there. And I met a lady there, and we became really good friends. She found out that my mom wasn’t here in the United States. So she felt really bad for me and started helping me out. And then she said, “Why don’t you guys, when you’re coming back from tournaments, stay with me?” She also set up time at the local club so that we could practice. I think that year, when we had been staying on and off with her, when my mom arrived, we started renting in Allentown. Because we had such a close friend there, and we really liked the climate.
JD: Wait, your mom wasn’t here initially?
VL: No, she wasn’t here [in the U.S.] for four years, from when I was 15 ‘till 19. Because of the paper problems, immigration was so tough, she couldn’t arrive until our case was solved.
JD: That must have been pretty rough.
VL: It wasn’t easy, obviously. But I think these kinds of moments can make you tough. I’m just happy to have her. Some people don’t have moms. Of course, we were always talking on the phone. You know, you always want to look on the bright side. I learned a lot of things on my own.
JD: Are you happy that you moved?
VL: Obviously. There are no doubts left, at all. I don’t think I would have had any future back in Uzbekistan, first of all, because I wanted to continue developing my career. It was really tough with money, and it was hard there to get a sponsor that could invest in you to travel. Everything is far away, and flights are pretty expensive. About three, four years after I and other players had left, the federation started financing people. But at the time, it was impossible. It wasn’t easy here, but it was much better, traveling and having so many tournaments, people helping you out.
JD: Who sponsored you? How did you get the start-up funds to travel and play challenger and futures events?
VL: We were sponsored by our federation to get here, because we were playing a team competition. But we weren’t getting money from them. It was some rough times, actually. In order to play, at times I had to sleep in a car. We had a van, a Mazda MPV, and we were driving everywhere, like thousands of miles from one end of the country to the other. And a lot of times, there wouldn’t be housing. So you just try to be flexible with things.
JD: You would sleep in the van?
VL: Yeah, many times I slept in the car. Six years ago, where was it, you would go to Hilton Head, and the official hotel was like, $80, $100 a night. And the prize money for getting to the finals was like—winner gets maybe $1000? You have to live and eat, and when you’re not doing great, you have to budget. I started out playing qualifying, two matches a day. Yeah, long time ago, but I still remember.
JD: There must have been a lot of pressure.
VL: No, no. You have to get used to it. There are no other options. What are you going to do?
Justin diFeliciantonio is the gear editor for TENNIS.com. Click here to read his Gear Talk conversation with Lepchenko.