HPTC Singles Finals:
Clash of Cultures
Avants and Varvara Lepchenko will play for the
championship of the Houston Pro Tennis Classic
(HPTC) on Sunday. But the road they took to reach
the finals at The Downtown Club at The Met couldn't
have been more divergent, both on and off the
Avants cruised to an easy 6-0, 6-1 victory over
Bruna Colosio of Brazil in less than an hour Saturday.
It took Lepchenko more than three hours and two-tiebreaks
to win her semifinal against Natallia Dziadmidzenka
of Belarus 4-6, 7-6, 7-6.
Avants jokes that she's been groomed for the sport
by her tennis-playing and -coaching parents since
she was nine months old. Her family owns and operates
a tennis club on their estate near Charlotte,
North Carolina. Ambidextrous, she pounds forehands
from both sides and plays with a confidence belying
her 19 years of age.
On the other hand, and as part of an ongoing international
drama half a world away, Lepchenko heart is set
on seeing her mother again some day, if not her
The 18-year-old Lepchenko, her father and coach
Pete, and sister, Jane, sought and received political
asylum from their native Uzbekistan at the 2001
Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships
in Miami. The three now call Miami home, but the
family is not complete.
"Our mother is still in Tashkent," said
Lepchenko after her win Saturday. "We've
tried to get her a visa to join us here, but we
are refused by the U.S. Consulate."
Just two months ago, 19 people were killed in
a suicide bomb blast in Tashkent. While the country,
which borders Afghanistan, is considered an ally
in the U.S.'s war on terrorism, the country has
been beset with political upheaval since breaking
away from the old Soviet Union 15 years ago.
"Ninety percent of the people who live in
Uzbekistan are Muslims," Lepchenko said.
"My family is in the 10 percent that are
Lepchenko says she grew up accepting fear as a
normal part of life in her homeland. "Every
day coming home from school, Uzbeki kids would
throw rocks at the ethnic Russians like me. For
many years, I had nightmares."
But, under the tutelage of her father, Pete, Lepchenko's
tennis, if not her daily life, improved. In 2000,
she finished third in the Girl's 16 division at
the Orange Bowl. The next year, when she reached
the tournament, she discovered that her entry
had been rescinded by the Uzbekistan Tennis Federation.
"The Federation had been trying to force
me to change coaches," said Lepchenko. "My
father had always been my coach. I think he knew
something was going on. He told the Federation
that he would accept being replaced, but he wanted
a little time before the change."
With Pete still her coach, Lepchenko found herself
shut out of the 2001 Orange Bowl. But, something
much bigger was brewing. Her father had decided
that his two daughters and he would defect.
"He didn't tell us his plan," Lepchenko
said. "He was afraid we might say something
to someone and ruin the whole thing. But, when
we got to Miami, we received political asylum.
"I don't ever want to go back there,"
Lepchenko said of her native country, "but,
I think the U.S. wants us to go back."
Lepchenko's mother, Larissa remains in Tashkent.
While daughter and mother speak frequently on
the phone and via e-mail, Varvara hasn't seen
her mother since her defection. Ironically, it's
not the Uzbekistan government that's preventing
"I don't think the U.S. wants immigrants
in this country, particularly from a place like
Uzbekistan," she said. "We've done everything
we can think of to get my mother out of there,
but we've not had any cooperation. I really think
(U.S. officials) want her to stay so that we will
have to go back. But, I will never go back there.
"I worry about my mother's safety living
in that country."
For a while on Saturday, and again on Sunday during
the HPTC finals, Lepchenko puts her worries to
rest and focuses on tennis, a sport that has provided
sanctuary for her in both a figurative and a very
But victory won't truly be won until her entire
family is reunited.