Troy a pit stop on Lepchenko’s road to Olympics

Published 9:39 pm Monday, July 23, 2012

Varvara Lepchenko hit the ball during a semi-final match of the 2011 USTA Tennis Classic of Troy in Troy, Ala., Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. (Messenger Staff Photo/Thomas Graning)

11 years ago, Varvara Lepchenko moved to the United States in search of grander opportunities. A native of Uzbekistan, Lepchenko was separated from her mother for four years while she made a name for herself on tennis courts across the country.

In September, Lepcheno became an American. One month later, she was playing at the Lunsford Tennis Complex in Troy and finished second in the Tennis Classic of Troy. Now, she is gearing up for the 2012 Olympics in London as a member of the U.S. Olympic Tennis team.

“It is a great feeling. It is a dream come true,” Lepchenkpo told The Messenger shortly after finishing a practice session in her home state of Pennsylvania. “It’s one of those things you always work for but when the moment came, it was exciting. I am thrilled to represent the United States.”

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Lepchenko, who made it the fourth round of the 2012 French Open before falling to No. 4 overall seed Petra Kvitová, said she never thought about trying out for something as big as the Olympics until she gained her citizenship.

“I never had it down as a goal (to make the Olympic team),” Lepchenko said. “I had a good start to 2012 and thought, ‘Why not?’”

The decision turned out to be a good one. Lepchenko found out about her selection in an unconventional way, however. Following a June match at Wimbledon, Lepchenko was sitting in the locker room checking her Twitter account when she came across a post from a United States Tennis Association staff member announcing the U.S. Olympic team and her name was on the list of just six women selected.

A rash of terrorist attacks and political uncertainty in Uzbekistan allowed Lepchenko and her family to be granted political asylum in the United States. Lepchenko made a home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she resides today though she continues to train trough the USTA in New York City.

“It was the best option,” Lepchenko said. “We didn’t have many options in Uzbekistan. It costs $300 to go anywhere outside the country. There weren’t many options as a tennis player. There aren’t any tournaments. There isn’t any help from a federation. There is nothing to help you start doing well.”

In 2006, Lepchenko reached the second round of the U.S. Open and later reached an international ranking of No. 84.

Currently ranked No. 41, Lepchenko credits smaller tournaments like the one in Troy with helping tennis players fine tune their game in order to reach Olympic heights.

“You get a lot of learning experiences in tournaments like the one in Troy,” Lepchenko said. “It was a great experience for me to participate, especially with the way people helped so much.”

Lepchenko also credited tournament organizer and Troy tennis head coach Eric Hayes directly for his dedication to each player in the event.

“People like Eric help a lot because he makes sure you are taken care of,” Lepchenko said. “He works hard and finds time for every player in the tournament and treats every player equal.”

Lepchenko finished second in the 2011 Tennis Classic of Troy, which is held every October, falling in the finals to Romina Oprandi.

Lepchenko also said the smaller atmosphere that Troy offers is a benefit to tennis players wishing to concentrate on improving their game.

“It allows you to focus more on tennis,” Lepchenko said. “A lot of younger players come in and improve their game to compete at higher levels. Also, players come in to work on things and they feel comfortable in places like Troy.”

Anxious to participate in the Olympics, Lepchenko said each player has their own story but no matter what a person’s background hard work pays off.

“You can play in any tournament in the world and if they are determined and believe in themselves, they can get anything that they want,” she said. “For me, to look back at all the tournament I’ve played in and all the work I’ve put in, I’m thankful for every experience I’ve had.”

Tennis events in the 2012 London Olympics will begin July 28.