Ford: Red Tape Not Halting Lepchenko's Determination to Make it on Tour
A lot of determined young tennis players have traveled strange roads to get to the pro ranks, but relatively few have commuted to public courts on in-line skates.
And that wasn't even the most difficult part of Varvara Lepchenko's journey. The 21-year-old from Uzbekistan defected at age 15 during a junior tournament in Florida, accompanied by her father and older sister, and hoped her mother would follow shortly. The family applied for political asylum, citing prejudice against Christians in the largely Muslim country.
Lepchenko, an ethnic Russian, doesn't like to discuss the details of her childhood in the former Soviet republic, but she admits it was extraordinarily difficult when her mother was unable to obtain a visa and the family was separated for several years. They spoke on the phone two or three times a week, but mostly, Lepchenko "just tried to block out the thought," she recalled during a phone interview between tournaments last weekend.
Meanwhile, Lepchenko mailed school papers home so she could earn a high school diploma while simultaneously trying to learn English and hone her tennis skills. She and her father/coach, Peter, perched in a friend-of-a-friend's apartment in the Miami area and walked to practice on municipal courts.
When the courts closest to them were booked, they needed wheels, so they picked up a pair of in-line skates, then another pair, "and then a bicycle, so I was on the bicycle and my father was on skates," Lepchenko said.
A tall, strong lefty whose two-fisted backhand is her bread-and-butter shot, Lepchenko also did some hitting with a group of American girls at the U.S. Tennis Association training center then located in Key Biscayne. USTA coach Jai DiLouie remembers her as a teenager with uncommon focus, "very serious about becoming a successful pro," he said.
"You couldn't give her enough," DiLouie said. "She's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. She played very smart and made you beat her."
As the Lepchenkos' application for citizenship wound its tortured way through the bureaucracy, Varvara and her father hit the road. In mid-2004, they drove through the night from South Carolina so Lepchenko could enter qualifying rounds for a $25,000 event in Allentown, Pa.
The first time recreational player Shari McKeever spotted her, Lepchenko was sprawled on a couch in the lobby of a local club, spent from the long trip. It was no wonder. Lepchenko was in the midst of a season during which she would visit 22 cities in 17 states from April through November.
"I was just amazed at her determination," McKeever said.
McKeever, a single mother of two who coordinates housing for players at the tournament, befriended Lepchenko, who reached the Allentown final that year. Lepchenko returned to win the championship there in 2005 and 2006 -- two of her five career U.S. Pro Circuit singles titles -- and McKeever became Lepchenko's "American mother," as they both say.
"She would call and talk to me about things she couldn't talk to her father about," McKeever said. "She's grown up a lot, although she always seemed so grown-up to me -- wise beyond her years, because of everything she's been through."
Allentown might not be the epitome of a tennis hotbed, but Lepchenko decided she liked the people and the landscape in the Lehigh Valley. She and her parents -- her mother finally was able to join them in 2006 -- now rent an apartment there, and Lepchenko trains indoors at the Westend Racquet Club.
Lepchenko is comfortable on both clay and hard courts. In late 2006, she survived U.S. Open qualifying to make it to the main draw and defeated No. 42 Catalina Castano of Colombia in the first round. That result helped her achieve a career-high ranking of 84th that season. It's also her best showing at a Grand Slam. She's currently ranked No. 139.
"Miserable" red tape occasionally has kept Lepchenko out of tournaments she intended to enter. She got a green card this past fall and the WTA Web site lists her as being from the United States, but she doesn't yet have formal citizenship or a passport. Every time she wants to travel outside the country to play, she has to wait for special paperwork. She won't venture back to Uzbekistan or anywhere in that region for fear of being detained.
As the best English-speaker in her family, Lepchenko makes her own travel arrangements and takes the lead in dealing with immigration authorities. She's hopeful the citizenship process will conclude soon and allow her to put all her energy into her game. Formal citizenship also would enable Lepchenko to receive USTA support and potential wild cards into tournaments. But she says she already considers herself an American. "I've been here so many years, I feel like I'm a citizen," she said.
By Bonnie D. Ford