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

Women

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

Men

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

Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower