PARIS (AP) Varvara Lepchenko's tennis odyssey carried her from the ex-Soviet nation of Uzbekistan to an apartment in Allentown, Pa., and U.S. citizenship last year.
On Saturday, she arrived somewhere she's never been before - the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament, thanks to a surprising 3-6, 6-3, 8-6 victory at the French Open over 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy.
Unseeded and ranked only 63rd, Lepchenko gutted out a 3-hour, 2-minute win over the 12th-seeded Schiavone, who also was last year's runner-up at Roland Garros. Lepchenko joined 19-year-old Sloane Stephens, who won Friday, to give the United States two unseeded women in the round of 16 at a major tournament for the first time since Wimbledon in 2002.
"Unexpected," said the 26-year-old Lepchenko, never before past a Grand Slam's second round, let alone third. "I mean, I didn't even expect it. I mean, I just worked hard and tried to believe in myself. I'm a fighter ... in real life and on the tennis court."
She was born in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, then moved with her father and sister to Florida more than a decade ago, granted political asylum so she could leave the Central Asian country to the north of Afghanistan that the U.S. government has pressed to improve its human rights record. Lepchenko's mother didn't join the rest of the family until four years later.
"There was no future for me, no future for my career," Lepchenko said of her birthplace. "I wouldn't be able to make it as far as I am right now if I was back in Uzbekistan."
In 2003, Lepchenko was befriended by a woman who arranged housing for players at a lower-tier tournament in Pennsylvania.
"Me and my dad, we didn't have enough money to rent an apartment, so we were struggling, going from one place to another. She said, `Listen, I know you guys are all the time on the road. If you ever need a place to stay, you can come and stay with me.' Because she had a huge house and had, like, a lot of room in it," Lepchenko recounted. "So ... she became like my mom."
That's how Lepchenko wound up in Allentown.
"I started to do better and started to make more money," she continued, "and I was able to rent an apartment."
Lepchenko, who became a U.S. citizen in September, trains in New York with U.S. Tennis Association coaches at the site of the U.S. Open.
Another unseeded American, 20-year-old Christina McHale of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., almost pulled off another upset Saturday, taking the first set against defending champion Li Na, before the only Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title turned things around and eliminated McHale 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.
"She's a very dangerous player," Li said, adding that her extra experience was the key.
Said McHale: "I'll just have to use this match and learn from it. Playing players like her in these rounds at tournaments is still new for me."
McHale fell to 0-3 in third-round matches at major tournaments, but she won over the Chinese media at her news conference with a couple of answers in Mandarin, which she learned while living in Hong Kong from ages 3 to 8.
Lepchenko was 0-4 in the second round at Grand Slams - and only 4-10 in first rounds - until this week.
Schiavone lamented losing a match that she felt was hers for the taking, including failing to convert any of the eight break points she held in the second set.
After shanking a shot early in that set, Schiavone cried out in Italian: "My God! She's falling apart, and I hit it out?"
"I could have imposed my will a little more," she said afterward. "I don't think I played excellent tennis."
The left-handed Lepchenko is playing the best tennis of her life.
She smiled and leaned back in her chair at Saturday's postmatch news conference when a reporter noted that her biography was not included in the print version of the 2012 WTA media guide.
"I keep a low profile. That's why they don't have me in there," Lepchenko joked, before explaining the real reason: She was ranked too low, 128th, at the start of this season.
Now she's moving up in the world.