Varvara Lepchenko marched into the Olympic Stadium in London this July, clad in the uniform of the United States and rapt up in the moment of being an American. It was a very long way from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
After being granted American citizenship last September, Lepchenko was free to fully pursue the passion of her life, and in doing so, she played well enough to earn a slot on the American Olympic tennis team.
She's had to get through a lot.
Lepchenko's tennis career started by fleeing her home nation and seeking political asylum in the United States, essentially finding herself without a country even though she found shelter. She and her father / coach Peter, a former engineer, flew from Tashkent to Miami in 2001, leaving her mother, Larisa, an accountant, behind. Her mother joined them (her sister already had) in 2007 when they finally were granted asylum.
Varvara and her father spoke little English and had little money, but she eventually won enough prize money to acquire a van, which often doubled as sleeping quarters. They struck out on the minor-league ITF circuit, qualifying for tournaments and staying with American families where they could.
In 2005, she won an ITF event in Allentown, Pa., where Shari Butz and her two children took them in and helped set Varvara up at a local tennis club. The Lepchenkos liked Allentown enough to call it home, at least for the few weeks a year they aren't traveling.
In 2006, she started to make small incursions into WTA main draws, and though her wins continued to come on the ITF circuit, she started to gain real ranking points, starting a real career. That career took off in earnest last year when she was granted citizenship. It was her passport to the full services of the USTA coaching program and an eventual spot in the world top 40. A quarterfinal finish at the Madrid Open and a fourth round at the French Open this season pushed her well up the ranking ladder.
Her match Monday was defined more by errors than winners. Lepchenko, a lefthander, made 49 unforced errors, Johansson had 42, including a whole slew of easy balls in the middle of the court. Lepchenko managed 24 winners to 15 for Johansson, which in the end allowed her to eke out the win.
Scraping by, making do, has been nearly a lifelong process for Lepchenko, 26.
"I had no real way to pursue tennis in Uzbekistan,'' Lepchenko said. "When we got to the United States, there was so much opportunity that the only decision I could make was to ask for asylum. Last year, I was so happy when I got my citizenship . . . You know before when I came here , it was a bit strange and it wasn't my home. Now, when I come in here, it feels like my house. It's a great feeling.''