Wimbledon 2013: How my American dream came true for Varvara Lepchenko
Twelve years ago the Uzbeki went to the US to play a junior tournament not knowing that her father was planning a family defection
When a tennis player next complains about the sacrifices they have had to make from an early age – being unable to party with their friends, living out of a suitcase, having to stick to a rigorous physical training programme – they would do well to listen to the story of Varvara Lepchenko. The women's world No 27 loves her life as it is today, making good money and playing the world's biggest tournaments, but if anyone has earned that lifestyle it is the 27-year-old from Uzbekistan.
Now an American citizen, Lepchenko is one of many modern-day players who have left behind their lives in eastern Europe or central Asia in order to further their careers in the west. For Lepchenko, however, the move led to years of scratching out a living, sleeping in a camper van, relying on the generosity of well-wishers and finding her feet in a country where it was hard even to make herself understood. It also meant spending four years apart from her mother and leaving behind her childhood friends.
Lepchenko, who will be seeded at Wimbledon this week for the first time, grew up in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. She was just 15 when her father, a tennis coach, took his two daughters on a trip to the United States. As far as the girls knew, they were travelling to a junior tournament in Florida. When the tournament was over their father broke the news: they would not be going back home and their mother would have to rejoin them at a later date.
"He never told us what he was planning, because my sister and I were so young that if we had known we would probably have said something and we would not have been allowed to go to the United States," Lepchenko said. "We would have been prevented from getting visas, things like that.
"It was a bit of a shock because I was just a kid. I lost all my friends back in Uzbekistan. I didn't have anyone to hang out with. Plus I suddenly had to live an adult life. My mum had to stay back in Uzbekistan.
'I didn't know then that it was going to take that long to not see her. I finally saw her again four years later. It was a big struggle.
"I missed a lot of those important years when your mum has to be around to teach you things. I had to learn on my own. Now we're trying to catch up on all those years. I'm sure it was harder for her than for me. She cried a lot over the phone. She was there by herself. At least we had each other – my sister, my father."
Lepchenko's parents – only one of whom was ever allowed by the Uzbekistan authorities to accompany their children overseas – had made their decision in order to give their family a new start and to help their daughters' tennis careers. "I didn't really have a lot of opportunities back in Uzbekistan," Lepchenko said. "A lot of people there were jobless and they don't have the best education."
The early years in Florida were hard. Lepchenko's father did some private coaching, as did the two sisters on occasions. A family friend lent them money, but they often had to rely on the generosity of people they met.
When Varvara was old enough to play in tournaments, they sometimes slept overnight in their camper van because they were unable to afford accommodation. "Luckily a lot of the Challengers provided housing, or people from the families that we met knew other families and that was how we kept on going, from one tournament to another," she said.
"But looking back, I never thought: 'Oh no, I'm a homeless person.' I was just living a dream.
"I knew it was not going to be easy. I thought: 'Let's compare this. Do I really want to go and sit in an office for eight hours?' I knew it would be difficult in the beginning, but nothing comes easy in life, so I just kept on fighting.
"The biggest inspiration behind me, of course, was my dad. At times I thought maybe I should go to college or do something like that. But he kept on saying: 'You've got the potential. Give everything. See where it's going to get you. You're close'." Varvara had learned English at school, so at 15 she had to do most of the talking. "At school we learned in a British accent, not an American accent, so it was often very difficult for me to understand," she said. "It was like: 'What language are they talking?'"
Life changed when Varvara played in a tournament in Allentown, Pennsylvania and the Lepchenkos met Shari Butz, who organised accommodation for the players.
Having befriended the Lepchenkos, she invited them to share her home. Lepchenko's parents still live in Allentown, where they now have their own house. "She was amazing," Lepchenko said.
"It was amazing for someone to take strangers into her house and pretty much have them for a couple of years and try to help them as much as she could. She has a big heart."
Initially Lepchenko made unspectacular progress as a senior. She was ranked around No 100 for five years before making her big breakthrough in the world rankings after she became a US citizen towards the end of 2011, since when she has played regularly on the Women's Tennis Association tour.
Now based in New York, she has been particularly grateful for the support of the US Tennis Association. She is now the American No 3, behind Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, and two of her proudest moments came when she represented her adopted country at the Olympics and in the Fed Cup.
Nevertheless, she misses Uzbekistan and the life she left behind. "I have great childhood memories, especially when I was a younger kid," she said. "It was all so carefree. We used to spend all the summer in the mountains, having adventures, swimming in a little lake. It wasn't all that bad. It's just that there was a brighter future for me in the USA and they adopted me so well, especially after all that I've been through." Next week offers her the chance to go up one further level.
Trading nations: Players on the move
Yaroslava Shvedova Russia to Kazakhstan
Made history last year by winning a Golden Set at a Grand Slam tournament
Marina Erakovic Croatia to New Zealand
The only New Zealand female to hold a WTA tour title
Galina Voskoboeva Russia to Kazakhstan
Represented Kazakhstan in the doubles at the 2012 Olympic Games
Yulia Putintseva Russia to Kazakhstan
Coached by Martina Hingis, she is rising up the rankings
Milos Raonic Montenegro to Canada
Highest-ranked Canadian tennis player in open era history
Marinko Matosevic Bosnia-Herzegovina to Australia
Joined the world's top 100 in 2012 after winning the ATP Challenger in Athens
Evgeny Korolev Russia to Kazakhstan
Anna Kournikova's cousin. Gained his first ATP points as a 15-year-old
Andrey Golubev Russia to Kazakhstan
Russian-born, resides in Italy but represents Kazakhstan
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