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

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
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.

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker