By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 4, 2006
It didn't take long for Varvara Lepchenko to feel like an American. The 20-year-old native of Uzbekistan, with the powerful left-handed game and gritty determination, embraced her new country almost as soon as she arrived here 4 1/2 years ago. Now there's no place she'd rather be.
"It's like my home right now," said Lepchenko, whose family's Russian heritage made them a target of persecution in her homeland. She fled the country with her father, Peter, and sister, Jane.
"People are so nice. The whole atmosphere makes me feel great and appreciated here. I feel like I belong here all my life. I don't miss Uzbekistan at all. It's just in my past," Lepchenko said.
Lepchenko has flourished since leaving Uzbekistan, making a name for herself on the USTA Pro Circuit, professional tennis's equivalent of minor league baseball. Seeded No. 4 in the Legg Mason Pro Circuit event, she outlasted Britain's Anne Keothavong, 6-3, 6-3, yesterday to advance to the round of eight, where she will meet Australia's Nicole Pratt.
Lepchenko also is playing doubles with Akgul Amanmuradov, another Uzbek. Their match last night was delayed because of the weather.
Since turning professional in 2002, Lepchenko has steadily risen in the world rankings. She is currently ranked No. 115 after defending her title in Allentown, Pa., in June and winning in College Park last month. She has won four titles on the tour, success that has rekindled her motivation.
"This year I started not very smart," she said. "I started to play tournament after tournament without stopping because I felt pressure to defend points. It wasn't smart of me to do. I got burned out."
Lepchenko's spirits also received a boost when her mother arrived two weeks ago. Lepchenko hadn't seen her mother since emigrating from the former Soviet republic. Located north of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is widely considered one of the world's most repressive societies. Although Lepchenko, her father and her sister were granted political asylum by the United States, Larisa Lepchenko wasn't allowed to come to this country until two weeks ago.
Lepchenko hardly believed her eyes when she finally saw her mother after a 4 1/2 -year absence.
"I couldn't believe that it happened," Lepchenko said. "I always talk to her on the phone, just hear her voice. I thought that it was a fantasy."
Lepchenko is in the process of becoming an American citizen. But because of her status she wasn't allowed to travel outside of the United States until recently. This prohibition severely hampered her tennis career, forcing her to play only events in this country.
"Right now, I can play everywhere, but I prefer to play here," she said. "As soon as I get my ranking up higher, I'll go everywhere."
After initially moving to Miami, she now calls Allentown home. She says she prefers the lifestyle in Pennsylvania to that of South Florida, where her sister lives.
"Because I travel so much and I see so many things, once in a while you just want to come back to a place where it's not that many cars, traffic," she said. "People are very friendly there.
"It's nothing like Uzbekistan."