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Uzbek-Born Tennis Ace Chases Olympic Dream Under U.S. Flag

Varvara Lepchenko is currently ranked at a career-high 44th in the world. (Getty Images/WTA Tour)
Varvara Lepchenko is currently ranked at a career-high 44th in the world. (Getty Images/WTA Tour)
It is late June and one of the most anticipated moments on the professional tennis calendar has arrived. Top players are stepping onto the hallowed British grass courts of Wimbledon, the sport's most prestigious tournament.
Among them is Varvara Lepchenko, a 26-year-old left-hander with a tenacious baseline game, who is coming off the best result of her career. Just weeks earlier at the French Open she upset Serbia's Jelena Jankovic -- the former world number one -- before overcoming former champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy.
Now an upstart instead of an unknown, Lepchenko is about to play her first-round match at Wimbledon when she checks her Twitter account. Word is spreading that she has been named to the U.S. Olympic team. The London Olympics are to be held in just a few weeks, with the tennis event taking place at Wimbledon. She takes to the court and dispatches her opponent and then confirms that the rumors are true.
In participating at the London Olympics, Lepchenko will fulfill a lifelong dream and cap a journey that began a world away in her native Uzbekistan.

"I am still processing this. It hasn't sunk in. We're all thinking that once we get there, once we go through the [opening] ceremony, that's when we'll finally realize that this is it," Lepchenko says.

"I think it's going to happen even earlier -- when I get on the flight and when I arrive at Heathrow [Airport]. I'll see all the signs and people and teams. I think that's when it's going to hit me."
Lepchenko was born in 1986 in Tashkent, a city then in the Soviet Union and today the capital of independent Uzbekistan. Inspired by her father's love of tennis, she began playing at age seven. It wasn't long before Lepchenko began to show promise, but she would face an uphill battle to hone her skills.

"Being able to practice, play tournaments around [the world], develop your talent -- I was struggling to do all of those things," Lepchenko says.

"The average income of an Uzbek [citizen] at that time was $20 or $30 a month. The other thing was that we wouldn't get any benefits from our [sports] federation. We didn't have any help."
Lepchenko says her family's Ukrainian and Russian roots also made life complicated in the Central Asian state.
Political Asylum

In 2001, at the age of 15, Lepchenko, her father, and her sister flew to Florida for a junior tournament. They never looked back.
The family applied for political asylum, which put them on the path to U.S. citizenship.

"[Uzbekistan] is not very democratic and there were a lot of things going on there, like terrorist attacks. Our lawyer advised us to apply [for asylum], because it was the best option at that time [to stay in the United States]," Lepchenko says.
Lepchenko will be playing alongside U.S. tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams.
Lepchenko will be playing alongside U.S. tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams.
But making it in America with little money and little English was no easy task. Lepchenko and her father, who is also her coach, spent many nights sleeping in the back of their van, scraping by on the meager prize money she won at small tournaments all over the country. Lepchenko also had to do without her mother, who stayed in Uzbekistan for years before joining the family.
When she looks back now, she sees that those hardships -- both in Uzbekistan and in the first years after she left -- made her tougher, both off the court and on.
And now, it seems, Lepchenko has truly arrived. After more than a decade living in the United States she was granted citizenship last fall -- just in time to become eligible for the Olympic team. Inspired by the prospect of going to London this summer, she worked even harder, and her daily seven-hour practice sessions have yielded dividends. She now holds a career-high ranking of 44th in the world and counts among her Olympic teammates U.S. tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams.

"When I was a kid I watched the Olympics on TV. You always watch and feel like, 'Wow, I wish I could be there one day. I wish I could get that far one day.' So it's obviously a dream come true," Lepchenko says.
Lepchenko is not expected to win a medal, but that seems unlikely to diminish her pride. She says she has "no mixed feelings at all" about which flag she will be playing under at the Olympics.
Her grandparents in Uzbekistan, she adds, will be watching.

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