The United States has sent 12 of its top male and female players to compete for the medals. They are facing the best from 43 other countries in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Representing the U.S. in the men’s event are Bob and Mike Bryan (in doubles), Ryan Harrison, John Isner, Andy Roddick and Donald Young. Serena and Venus Williams, Christina McHale, Varvara Lepchenko, Liezel Huber (who lives in Cypress) and Lisa Raymond represent the distaff team.
With family finally intact, Varvara could concentrate on her tennis and conditioning, and it’s been a steady climb since then.
I’m a fan of all the players but especially of Lepchenko, who became a U.S. citizen in September 2011. We met eight years ago when she played in a $10,000 Challenger tournament at the Downtown Club at the Met. At the time she was ranked No. 486 in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association. The Challenger tour is organized by the United States Tennis Association to provide competition for aspiring tennis professionals.
Part of my job as the local publicist for the USTA tournament was researching story angles about these young as-yet-unknown players. While sitting in on player interviews by the tournament’s videographer, I heard Varvara’s compelling story.
She quietly told us that she, her father Peter and sister Jane came to the States from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to play in the Orange Bowl junior tournament in Miami, Fla., in 2001. Because they were unhappy and discriminated against in their home country, they sought and received political asylum here in 2005. They settled in Miami, but their mother Larisa remained in Tashkent, unable to obtain a visa to come to the United States.
Tournament director David Gray, Met tennis director Keith Christman, videographer Tim Gregg and I decided we would do what we could to help bring her mother here and assist the Lepchenkos in obtaining visas, which would allow them to travel freely. Varvara’s development as a tennis player depended on competing on the international circuit against the best players. We sent letters describing her situation to several prominent people and politicians seeking their help.
The governor of Florida at the time, Jeb Bush, suggested that since this was a federal matter we should contact the two Florida state senators. Sen. Bill Nelson responded and sent papers for the Lepchenkos to begin the visa process.
I became a self-appointed press agent and alerted reporters about Varvara’s story as she continued to play at other tournaments in the United States. The more her story was told, the more support she would receive.
Reporters responded eagerly to this human interest story, and Varvara picked up more friends and supporters at each tournament. In Allentown, Pa., where the family eventually settled, a local tennis enthusiast invited them to stay at her home and became as Varvara described, “a second mom to me.”
Eventually the many phone calls and emails paid off, and Varvara received her travel papers from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s office in 2005. That same year Varvara sent me photos from Austria of her first reunion with her mother in four years. Eventually her mother’s papers were approved, and Larisa Lepchenko joined her family in their Allentown home in July 2006.
With family finally intact, Varvara could concentrate on her tennis and conditioning, and it’s been a steady climb since then. Between tournaments the 26-year-old southpaw trains with the USTA coaches in New York City. At the French Open she notched wins over Jelena Jankovic and Francesca Schiavone and climbed to No. 51 in the rankings. (Her current ranking is No. 41.)
At the Olympics, Lepchenko advanced to the second round of women's single play with a 7-5, 6-7 (8-6), 6-2 win over Paraguay’s Veronica Cepede Royg on Monday. Next up for Lepchenko is Germany’s Julia Georges who upset world No. 2-ranked player Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-7, 6-4.
Lepchenko is the second American to advance to the second round of women’s singles play, joining Serena Williams.
Many folks and organizations helped the Lepchenkos settle and seek success in this country, and I’m proud to be one of them.