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Lepchenko at home in 'lion's den'

IANS
NEWS
Modified 17 Oct 2012, 12:38 IST
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Moscow, Oct 17 (IANS/RIA Novosti): 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, but admits part of her dreaded playing at the ongoing Kremlin Cup here.

“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 said.

Kournikova faced virulent criticism from anti-Americans for her perceived closeness to 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 is seeded 12th here.

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

She said she 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. 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. For example, her status as a refugee in the U.S. denied her contact with her mother back home for four years.

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Despite being trained on the run-down courts of Tashkent, away from the state-of-the-art academies, this season has seen Lepchenko charge into the world’s top 20 and the U.S. Olympic team.

It brought a 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. I saw it on Twitter, from one of the USTA tweets and I was, like, ‘Wow’,” she said.

Lepchenko grew up in Tashkent, part of a minority Ukrainian community that was comprised of people sent by Soviet authorities and which left her without any true sense of identity.

“I can’t call myself an Uzbek. I don’t know their language, I never observed their customs, I never celebrated their holidays. I have Ukrainian blood but I can’t call myself completely Ukrainian because I never lived in Ukraine. I was there only once,” she added.

Later, faced with the prospect of a stagnating tennis career and facing discrimination – “I wasn’t accepted in Uzbekistan as their own” – Lepchenko sought political asylum in the U.S.

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

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“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?’ The Uzbek federation withdrew me from playing,” she said, adding that she was rescued by the kindness of U.S. tennis officials.

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

When asked whether life in Pennsylvania offers a sense of acceptance, Lepchenko answers: “Oh yeah, that’s for sure. They adopted me, so I’m very honoured and proud to be an American.”

Lepchenko, who has 11 ITF singles titles but is yet to earn a WTA title, 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, I can be a lot higher than I am today. I’m looking to win tournaments and whatever comes with that,” she adds.

On the court, Lepchenko is a commanding presence using her powerful forehand to force her way into the women’s tennis elite.

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

Published 17 Oct 2012, 12:38 IST
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