She hasn’t dropped a set yet, has spent less than five hours in total on court through her first four matches, is averaging a 24 winner-count in each round, yet somehow Jelena Ostapenko has been flying under the radar at Wimbledon this fortnight.
The Latvian 2017 French Open champion, lost in the first round of her title defence in Paris six weeks ago, but is back on a mission on the lawns of south-west London and booked herself a spot in the quarter-finals with a 7-6 (4), 6-0 over Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Monday.
After falling behind 2-5 to Sasnovich – who knocked out Petra Kvitova in the first round – Ostapenko won 11 of the next 12 games to wrap up the win and reach the last-eight at Wimbledon for a second consecutive year.
The 21-year-old, who next faces unseeded Slovak Dominika Cibulkova, won the Wimbledon junior title in 2014 and has an aggressive style that can be terrifying on grass.
Ostapenko’s shock first-round loss to Kateryna Kozlova at Roland Garros in May saw her drop out of the top-10. She parted ways with her coach of just six months, David Taylor, after Paris and added Glenn Schaap to her team, to work alongside her mother. Schaap had just split with Anett Kontaveit, also after the French Open.
“I’m just trying to forget it as quick as I could and I just want to have a good tournament here.”
That she is having.
The young Latvian has been her fiery self so far this Wimbledon, and has been particularly ruthless on return, winning 20 of 38 return games on her opponents’ serve.
With all top-10 seeds crashing out before the quarter-finals, Ostapenko is the second-highest ranked player still standing in the draw, behind No. 11 Angelique Kerber.
She has been witnessing all the high-profile upsets from afar but is trying to remain focused on her own path.
“I’m not surprised anymore because every day something strange is happening in a draw and some surprises. Just now Simona lost, that was a big upset probably. But I’m still in the draw and I’m playing and just trying to focus on myself,” Ostapenko said after her third round on Saturday.
“I’m just trying to focus on myself because I think that when I play well I can beat anyone.”
Does she have an explanation as to why all these top-10 players fell early?
“I don’t know. I think grass is always a tricky surface – for me I really like it but probably for the other players it’s hard because you never know what to expect because some players can play better on grass and the bounces are not always the same, so I don’t know what’s happening,” she replied.
Ostapenko says her current level is similar to how it was at the French Open last year but believes the grass is even better for her game.
Her first tournament with Schaap was Eastbourne, right before Wimbledon, and she says they’ve already struck up a solid dynamic.
“It was a good almost half year working with David [Taylor] but after the French Open we decided to not continue working because it wasn’t working anymore,” said Ostapenko.
“For me I think everything is positive that I changed the coach. When I started to work with Glenn, he told me some things and I really like those things and they were working very well. And I think it helps my game a lot what he’s saying.”
Ostapenko has now had three different coaches working alongside her mother within the last 12 months – Schaap, Taylor, and Anabel Medina Garrigues, who was in her corner during her Roland Garros title run last year.
It may not always be easy listening to all these different voices within one’s camp and Ostapenko admits it doesn’t always go too well.
“It depends, if I have respect and I saw what that coach did before then I have respect straightaway and I listen to everything he says but if I see that things aren’t really working so well then I’m doubting, and maybe I listen but inside I have this feeling that it’s not working and like I don’t need to listen to it probably,” she says with a smile.
With Ostapenko and her compatriot Ernests Gulbis both making the second week at Wimbledon this fortnight, it’s the first time in history that multiple Latvian players have made it this far at the same Grand Slam.
“It’s great to see him doing this well because I think he’s such a talented player and he can play on a very high level,” Ostapenko said of Gulbis.
“I hope he’s going to go even further in the tournament.”
As we enter the Wimbledon last-16 stage on Monday, only six seeds are still standing in the women’s draw and only one of them is a top-10 player – Karolina Pliskova.
On the men’s side, five of the top-10 seeds were sent packing, although Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and 12th-seeded Novak Djokovic are all still alive.
There has been so much commotion regarding the seeds carnage at the All England Club this fortnight but perhaps we should stop and ask ourselves what exactly constitutes an “upset”?
Is it an upset any time a player defeats a higher-ranked opponent? When a three-time Grand Slam champion like Stan Wawrinka, whose ranking is down to 224 because he was sidelined with an injury, defeats sixth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, should we really call that an upset?
Since the start of March, Dimitrov has made just one semi-final on tour and his Wimbledon preparations consisted of two matches, one tight win over Damir Dzumhur at Queens, followed by an easy defeat to Djokovic in the next round. Granted Wawrinka hasn’t been winning much either but it was hardly a surprise that the Swiss won.
World No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki lost to Russian lefty Ekaterina Makarova in the second round. Makarova has 12 top-10 wins posted at the Slams throughout her career. Only three active players have won more: Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. Again, is that really an upset?
Fantastic follow-ups: 8 of the 9 who defeated a Top 10 seed are into the 2nd week.
Hsieh (No.1 Halep)
Makarova (No.2 Wozniacki)
Van Uytvanck (No.3 Muguruza)
Vekic (No.4 Stephens)
Bencic (No.6 Garcia)
Sasnovich (No.8 Kvitova)
Bertens (No.9 Venus)
Rodina (No.10 Keys)#Wimbledon
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) July 7, 2018
Form, previous results, head-to-heads, confidence levels, weather conditions… so many things contribute to a specific outcome of a match on a given day. The closer we pay attention — in most cases — the more a result will make sense.
While surely there have been unexpected shocks, like Petra Kvitova losing in the first round to Aliaksandra Sasnovich, or Marin Cilic blowing a two-sets-to-love lead in a rain-interrupted second round against Guido Pella, the idea that an entire draw is collapsing is not an accurate indication of what’s been really happening.
Eight of the nine players to defeat women’s top-10 seeds have made it into the second week. So those so-called “upset-makers” have actually backed up their wins throughout the opening week.
Is it such a bad thing that the level is so close in tennis that the number next to a player’s name is becoming less and less significant?
I, for one, am more engaged when I don’t already know who the winner of a certain match, or tournament, is going to be. It’s time we embrace the “chaos”, and reexamine our way of how we look at upsets.
Daria Kasatkina remembers how she felt the first time she stepped on a grass court to play a match.
It was the junior event at Wimbledon in 2012, and the Russian was just 15 years old.
“Juniors, first round, I was completely… lost 6-0 first set, and I thought this is the s*****est surface in the century, in the history of tennis,” Kasatkina says with a laugh.
Four years later, she made her Wimbledon main draw debut and reached the third round, where she lost a tight affair to five-time champion Venus Williams, 10-8 in the deciding set.
“After I won my first match I realised that everything is possible on this surface. After I played10-8 against Venus Williams on the grass I realised if you find the keys to how to play, you can play on any surface,” she added.
Seeded No. 14 at Wimbledon this fortnight, Kasatkina has reached the fourth round at the All England Club for the first time, where she faces Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck.
She is one of several players to enjoy breakthroughs on the grass this tournament, after they’ve finally figured out the right formula to compete on it.
“The most difficult thing on grass is to move on the grass because it’s very specific, especially when the grass is getting old, there is no grass anymore on the baseline, it’s more like sand, so it’s tough. Because in the middle it’s sand and on the sides it’s still grass, so you have to manage it a little bit,” explains the 21-year-old Kasatkina.
A player whose instincts drive her to play with so much variety, Kasatkina believes grass brings out the most creativity out of her.
One creative and incredibly athletic player who has long struggled on the turf is Gael Monfils. You could hear him during matches on grass in the past complain about how much he hates the surface and doesn’t know how to play on it. Yet on his 10th appearance at Wimbledon, the Frenchman has finally made it into the second week for the first time.
“I just try not to even think about it. I try to like the grass as much as I like to play tennis. It’s different than when I play on clay. On hard is different. I just had my mindset like, it’s another surface,” said Monfils, who takes on No. 8 seed Kevin Anderson in the last-16 on Monday.
“So I need to move differently but be aware of I have to adjust the way I move, adjust the way I think also, be a bit more offensive, maybe less defensive. Have less neutral shots. So I just feel that year after year I’ve been improving and finally I can say that I like grass.”
Defeating two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist Richard Gasquet in the first round also must have helped boost Monfils’ confidence in his abilities on the lawns of SW19.
There are many players who, on paper, should be great on grass, and have all the weapons to be dangerous on the surface, yet somehow, they’ve never excelled on it. The grass season is so short that those who want to improve on the surface, never have the time to actually work on their grass game.
With the ball skidding low off the grass, big servers and power-hitters can dominate at Wimbledon. Yet someone like ace queen Karolina Pliskova has had troubles for years at the All England Club and it’s only this fortnight that she has managed to make it past the second round for the first time.
She is the only top-10 women’s seed still standing in the draw and few would have picked Pliskova to make it this far, considering her previous record at the event. After losing in the first round on her Wimbledon debut, Pliskova fell in round two on each of her last five visits to south-west London.
When she defeated Victoria Azarenka in the second round last week, the seventh-seeded Pliskova was relieved. Her first words when she walked off-court for her TV interview were: “I’m finally in the third round!”
“I didn’t change many things, but I just believed,” says Pliskova, who next faces another Wimbledon fourth-round first-timer, Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens.
No. 13 seed Julia Goerges, who is a frequent doubles partner of Pliskova, also ended her Wimbledon hoodoo this fortnight. The German, who plays Donna Vekic in the last-16 on Monday, hadn’t won a match at SW19 for the past five years.
She has all the tools to perform well on this surface – powerful groundstrokes and a massive serve – but it took her time to learn how to deal with it. Goerges jokes that maybe playing doubles with Pliskova in Birmingham helped them change their luck on the turf.
“Until last year I didn’t feel great on the grass honestly. I didn’t like it. But last year we added David Prinosil to our team for a few weeks and he really taught me how to think about grass, that you need to accept a lot of balls where you cannot do something about it and I think that changed a bit my mentality to really have fun a little bit out there,” said Goerges.
“To try to play the game a little bit different than you used to do on hard court and clay. So I think I can be a very dangerous player and a very good player on grass courts because I have a lot of weapons which I can use. If I use them smart, I think I can go far.”
With so many upsets taking place this year at Wimbledon, who knows how far these second-week debutants can go. The opportunity is there and they know it.