CARLSBAD — When the Merchat family began hosting athletes participating in the annual tennis tournament at La Costa Resort and Spa, little did they know they would be opening their Carlsbad home to a future Olympian.
Varvara Lepchenko, an Uzbekistan native who recently became an American citizen, will represent the United States in the 2012 London Games alongside recent Wimbledon champions Serena and Venus Williams.
“Would we ever have guessed?” asked Jennifer Merchat. “Absolutely not. But they’re an outstanding family and work exceptionally hard. She earned it.”
As social tennis players, Jennifer and her husband, Frank, were frequent spectators at the resort’s Acura Tennis Classic, as it was originally called. They learned through word of mouth that younger, lesser-known players often needed housing during the tournament.
“We always enjoyed going over there,” Jennifer said. “We thought, ‘Why not help some of the athletes?’”
After submitting the required paperwork in 2003, Jennifer was screened during a phone interview. Officials then visited her home to ensure the accommodations were adequate, safe and clean.
“My hat’s off to La Costa,” Jennifer said. “They don’t place these girls with just anyone. And they make sure it’s a good fit for both parties.”
The Merchats hosted athletes in 2003 and 2004. The next year they received a call asking if they could house a player and her two dogs.
They turned down that request, but were happy to open their home to Lepchenko, who was 19 at the time, and her father and coach, Peter.
“The first two girls (in 2003 and 2004) were wonderful but there was something really special about Varvara,” Jennifer said. “She transitioned into our home just like she was a member of our family.
“Initially we did this because we wanted to help young players trying to make it on the circuit,” she said. “But they gave so much more to us.”
Lepchenko served as a role model for the couple’s two teenage daughters, who were school and club volleyball players.
“Our girls learned that when you’re a professional athlete, you must watch everything that goes into your mouth,” Jennifer said. “Varvara ate a lot of fruits and vegetables and chicken and fish, and only small amounts of carbohydrates. And she drank lots of water.
“She never ate candy,” Jennifer said. “Her only sweets were walnuts dipped in honey. As a parent you can tell your kids how important it is to eat right and train. But having an exceptional athlete in your home speaks louder than words.”
“Varvara was a wonderful role model,” said Krista Merchat, a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, where she played volleyball. “She was extremely dedicated and disciplined.
“I was going into my freshman year in high school when she stayed with us,” Krista said. “I really became serious about volleyball and Varvara was an incredible example of a serious athlete willing to do anything to succeed. I was intimidated by her but had a strong respect for her work ethic.”
“Varvara was such an amazing influence,” said Katherine Merchat, a junior at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. “She was such a hard worker and remarkable person.
“Varvara taught me about the importance of commitment,” Katherine said. “She put everything into being the best tennis player she could be. She has showed me that if you go for your dreams, you can accomplish anything.”
Frank and Jennifer said they also gained from their week-long house guests.
“Having Varvara and Peter live with us showed us how hard life can be on the road and how the family’s whole future was riding on Varvara’s success as a tennis player,” Frank said. “It was really all or nothing.”
When tennis officials called the Merchats in 2006 to see if they could house the Lepchenkos again, this time with her hitting coach, they were happy to accommodate them.
Varvara and her father also became part of their extended family. Frank’s father and his wife, who lived in San Pedro, hosted them twice when Varvara was playing in Los Angeles tournaments.
Lepchenko and the Merchats hadn’t communicated much since their 2006 stay. But when Lepchenko upset Italy’s Francesca Schiavone at the French Open last month, Jennifer sent a congratulatory text.
“I wasn’t sure if she even had the same phone number,” Jennifer said. “But she texted me back and even asked how the girls were doing. I asked her if she was coming to La Costa this year. She said she wasn’t sure because she was waiting to see if she made the Olympic team.”
A few days later Lepchenko received the news via Twitter that she would be going to London.
“I was scrolling through my tweets before my match, and there it was,” Lepchenko told ESPN.com. “I have dreamed of this for so long. I was not sure if it was reality.”
Although the Merchats haven’t hosted an athlete since Lepchenko, Jennifer said she encourages local families to attend the tournament and, if possible, open their homes to the young players.
“What you’ll find is that you get so much more in return than you ever thought you could,” she said.
Lepchenko, 26, has earned about $1.2 million in career winnings since 2007. She was ranked 44th in the country as of July 9.
Before heading to London, she made a stop in Carlsbad to play at La Costa Resort’s Mercury Insurance Open with her other Olympic team member, Christina McHale.
Lepchenko arrived July 13 and planned to have dinner with the Merchats at their home. But this time the soon-to-be Olympian stayed at the resort.