There's No Place Like Home

by: Cindy Shmerler | August 12, 2012

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Varvara Lepchenko walks hurriedly across the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center, passing Arthur Ashe stadium on her way from the indoor training center to the fitness room in the US Open’s player lounge. She sees Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand courts, the TV booths, the food court with its signs hawking everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to taco salads and crepes. She saunters past the giant reflecting pool with the fountain that spouts water high in the air, the giant Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair shining in the distance, beyond the shuttered turnstile gates that burst with energy for two weeks near the end of every summer.

When Lepchenko takes this walk, there are no fans pressing giant tennis balls into the faces of players on the practice courts, no quartets atop platforms playing jazz and no water in the pool outside Ashe stadium. For Lepchenko, a 26-year-old native of Uzbekistan who now plays under the American flag, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is her home port, where she trains with Christina McHale, Melanie Oudin and other young Americans when they aren’t playing tournaments. Walking the grounds in the quiet of the US Open offseason is both cathartic and reassuring.

“It’s like my home here,” says Lepchenko, who has, between the qualifying tournament and the main draw, played every US Open since 2005, winning one main draw match along the way. “I now feel like all the other people there are my guests.”

For Lepchenko, who received her U.S. citizenship just last September and in June snagged the fourth and final women’s singles spot on the U.S. Olympic team, the ascent to the upper echelon of women’s tennis has been both slow and methodical, and meteoric at the same time. Ranked No. 110 at the start of 2012 and forced to play qualifying at most WTA tournaments, she jumped to just outside the Top 50 by Wimbledon. Her rise was bolstered largely by a round-of-16 run at the French Open, where she upset former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and 2010 French champ Francesca Schiavone 8-6 in the third set before falling to the No. 4 seed, Petra Kvitova. She also reached the third round at Wimbledon before falling to Kvitova. Though she has more than halved her ranking this year, Lepchenko, whose friends call her “V” or “Big V”, did not exactly burst on the American tennis consciousness.

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city and a Soviet Republic until 1991,
Lepchenko says she never felt Uzbekistani and was never treated as a native daughter by the tennis federation there. Her junior highlights include stints as a ball girl during ATP events in Tashkent when she got to have her picture taken with a young Marat Safin and shake the hand of 1998 champion Tim Henman. But while the budget-bound Uzbekistan Tennis Federation found funding for male players like Denis Istomin, currently ranked a career-high No. 39 on the ATP Tour, and even had enough left over for Akgul Amanmuradova, ranked as high as No. 50 on the Women’s Tennis Association in 2008, Lepchenko always felt shunned.

“It was a lot of political stuff,” says Lepchenko, who has always been coached by her father, Petr, though she now also works with Jay Gooding under the USTA training program. “My grandparents were from Eastern Ukraine in the USSR so I wasn’t a real Uzbekistani. I was never accepted as one of their own. I was never chosen for the teams and never given money. It was tough there to become a professional tennis player. My dad just didn’t see me growing.”

The situation came to a head in December 2000 when then-14-year-old Lepchenko came to the United States as part of an Uzbekistan team delegation and decided to play the Orange Bowl junior championships. When the Uzbekistan Tennis Federation refused to enter her, a teary Lepchenko went to the USTA, which agreed to let her play anyway. (Unseeded, she reached the semifinals in the girls’ 14s.) The UTF fired back, trying to force the USTA to reimburse the federation for her airline ticket. Not long afterwards, Lepchenko was summoned home with the promise that if she agreed to play Fed Cup for Uzbekistan, the Federation would consider giving her some financial help and would choose which tournaments she would be allowed to play. She flatly refused.

“It was a shock to me,” says Lepchenko. “I was training and playing junior tournaments in the States and they wanted me to come back and play only a few tournaments they had there, then sit around and wait for the next one.” Instead, Lepchenko, her father and her sister Jane fled their native land--leaving Varvara’s mother to fight for four years for immigration papers before being able to join them--and moved to Sunny Isles, Florida, a Russian-speaking community north of Miami, where they rented an apartment from a family friend and Varvara began training with Jai DiLouie at the USTA’s Key Biscayne training center.

Though she had grown up challenging the likes of Maria Sharapova and Maria Kirilenko, Lepchenko floundered for the next three years, training a bit with top American juniors like Shenay Perry and Ahsha Rolle while also trying to sort out everything from passports and visas to housing for her family, often at the expense of practice time. But life changed when, in 2004, just after she turned 18, she and her father drove their Mazda MPV—a mini-van they often slept in as they traversed the country in search of tournaments to play and ranking points to earn—into Allentown, PA, for a $25,000 USTA Circuit event. While advancing through qualifying to reach the final, Lepchenko was befriended by a tournament staffer named Shari Butz who, upon hearing her story and knowing that her mother was back in Uzbekistan, offered Varvara and her father two rooms in her home and even arranged for unlimited court time at a local club.

“For me, it is such a good place to live,” says Lepchecnko, whose parents still live in Allentown and who goes back for weekend lake-side picnics whenever she can, though she stays with her boyfriend in Queens while training at the National Tennis Center. “We really hated Florida; it’s too hot. I like being outdoors with no one around, being one on one with nature.”

Lepchenko’s game, with its big lefty hook and tricky sidespin, has long been a work in progress. She can play brilliantly one week, as she did in knocking off Schiavone and Anabel Medina Garrigues to reach the quarterfinals of Madrid in May and as she’s done this week with impressive straight-set wins in Montreal over 24th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and 13th-ranked Dominika Cibulkova. But one week after Madrid, Lepchenko fell to Russian Anna Chakvetadze, a former Top 10 player now ranked 337th in the world, in qualifying for Rome. At Wimbledon, she upset 31st-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, only to panic against the brute force of the defending champion, Kvitova, in the next round.

“She’s strong and a very physical player,” says Gooding, who also works with McHale and Oudin. “She hits a heavier, different kind of spin than most lefties. She’s also a little bit older, a little smarter and she knows how to play the game. She’s not as fast as some of the other girls so she has to move forward inside the lines a little bit more. And she needs to be more consistent in her level of play.”

“If you’re a tennis player you need a team around you; you can’t just have your mom, dad and sister,” admits Lepchenko, who joined the USTA program last September, just after the Open, and has spent a great deal of time working with trainers to shore up her fitness level. “There were always so many things I had to worry about and struggle with, like not traveling to certain places so I could save pages in my passport. Any tennis player who has that much to deal with outside of tennis is not able to show her best tennis.”

While Lepchenko has spent the better part of a decade sorting out her personal life, nothing matched the feeling of obtaining U.S. citizenship. “Here’s the thing,” Lepchenko chuckled when asked if any questions on the exam stumped her. “I was so scared that I wasn’t going to pass [the test]. I studied so hard for a month. But now I don’t remember anything. It’s because we are tennis players; we’re trained to switch it off and move on to the next point. Obviously, it was a winning point for me.”

Now, the point that Lepchenko really looks forward to is returning to Flushing
Meadows when her USTA academy players aren’t the only ones roaming the grounds. The best part, she says, will be when she hears the national anthem, looks up at the American flag flying high over Arthur Ashe Stadium and realizes that it is her flag.

“The US Open is a very special Grand Slam for me,” Lepchenko says. “The first time I qualified [in 2006] my mother had just arrived and was watching me. I was only 19 and everything was great and exciting, even the player party. But now that people know that I play for the United States, they will cheer so loud. To play in Arthur Ashe would be so amazing.

“I have felt American from the moment I stepped on this ground,” she adds. “People here are polite, they smile, and they go about things in a very nice way. In the U.S., everyone was an immigrant at one point so they accept you as you are.

“Here,” says Lepchenko with a catch in her throat, “I feel right at home.”

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