Tennis: Lepchenko at Home in 'Lion's Den'

As an American stranger in Moscow, Varvara Lepchenko is relieved her return to the former Soviet Union wasn't the lion's-den experience she feared it might be.

As an American stranger in Moscow, Varvara Lepchenko is relieved her return to the former Soviet Union wasn't the lion's-den experience she feared it might be.

The No. 2 U.S. player behind Serena Williams, Lepchenko is a native-Russian speaker with a reputation for mental toughness and consistency, but admits part of her dreaded playing at this week's Kremlin Cup in the Russian capital.

"I'd seen one of Anna Kournikova's matches back when I was a junior, saw that from the stands they were screaming 'Go back to America!' in Russian," she told R-Sport.

Kournikova faced virulent criticism from anti-Americans for her perceived closeness to the U.S, but Lepchenko was surprised to see young fans chasing her autographs rather than denouncing her, a sign of the changing times.

"I'm glad I'm getting that kind of reception, instead of what I thought might be unpleasant," added the 26-year-old, who was seeded 12th for the $740,000 event.

Lepchenko crashed out in the first round Tuesday with a surprise 6-0, 7-6 (3) defeat to Tsvetana Pironkova, ranked 23 places below her.

She admitted she had played despite being ill, out of desire to return to a former Soviet country for the first time since she sought asylum in the U.S. after fleeing her native Uzbekistan in 2001.

"I wanted to experience, after 12 years, being back in the Soviet Union. So I tried the best I could," she said. "I was struggling with my sleep, with breathing, and it showed in my result."

Lepchenko was born to a Ukrainian family in Uzbekistan, and has spent much of her life trapped between different identities and nationalities. Sometimes literally, such when her status as a refugee in the United States denied her contact with her mother back home for four years.

Despite a tennis education on the run-down courts of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a world away from the state-of-the-art academies that churn out many modern stars, this season has seen Lepchenko charge into the world's top 20 and the U.S. Olympic team.

It brought long-awaited confirmation of belonging for the adopted Pennsylvanian, who had been an American citizen for less than a year when she got the "unreal" news.

"No one officially came to me and said it," she recalled. "I saw it on Twitter, from one of the USTA tweets and I was, like, 'Wow.'"

It left Lepchenko pumped for a pre-Olympic tournament. "It was right before my match, literally 10 or 15 minutes left, so I was pretty encouraged," she says.

Lepchenko grew up in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, part of a minority Ukrainian community that was comprised of people sent to the Central Asian state by Soviet authorities, and which she says left her without any true sense of identity.

"I can't call myself an Uzbek because I'm not really an Uzbek, I don't know their language, I never observed their customs, I never celebrated their holidays," she says.

"I have Ukrainian blood, but I can't call myself completely Ukrainian because I never lived in Ukraine. I was there only once."

Later, faced with the prospect of a stagnating tennis career in a comparative sporting backwater and facing discrimination - "I wasn't accepted in Uzbekistan as their own," she says - Lepchenko sought political asylum in the U.S.

The turning point came when the 16-year-old Lepchenko arrived alone at a junior tournament in Miami to find she had been abandoned by Uzbek tennis authorities, a decision she blames on racism.

"A couple of days before the tournament start, I couldn't find myself on the entry list, and so I was like 'What's going on?'" she said, adding that she was rescued by the kindness of U.S. tennis officials.

"They told me that the Uzbek federation withdrew me from playing, that they didn't want me to play," she said. "They saw me crying, I was only 16 years old, and they were like 'Well, then, we're not going to stop anyone from playing tennis. You just have to get in touch with this person and you represent the United States. We'll enter you from our country."

She eventually received citizenship in September 2011 after years of uncertainty and help from senators.

When asked whether life in Allentown, Pennsylvania, offers a sense of acceptance that she had never found anywhere else, Lepchenko is quick to answer: "Oh yeah, that's for sure. They adopted me, so i'm very honored and proud to be an American."

Lepchenko's friendships on the tour encompass her various identities, with Uzbekistan, Russia and the U.S. all represented.

"This Asian tour, I've been hanging out a lot with Nadia Petrova and before, in Europe, I was with Melanie [Oudin] and Christina [McHale]. It really depends," she says, adding that she remains close to her Uzbek former doubles partner Akgul Amanmuradova and the country's men's No. 1 Denis Istomin, a childhood friend.

"I don't set myself also limits in my relationships," she says.

Lepchenko frames much that she discusses in terms of the same ambition.

"Everything is mental, whatever you set your mind to is going to happen, and if I set my mind to it, the surfaces don't really affect me," she says of her remarkable consistency across clay, grass and hard court tournaments.

Lepchenko, who has 11 ITF singles titles to date but is yet to register a WTA tour victory, says her mental strength has been key to her rise and could yet propel her further.

"There's still so much to improve at this level, so it's good to know that, if I improve all of those things that I've been working on, that I can be a lot higher than I am today," she says.

"I'm looking into winning tournaments and whatever comes with that. I don't really set any goals for certain tournaments, I just- whatever it is, I want to win it."

On the court, Lepchenko is a commanding presence, using her powerful forehand to force her way into the women's tennis elite, all accompanied by a low, lingering grunt.

Off the court, her search for a place to belong has yet to be fully resolved.


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