A short while after Jelena Ostapenko reached her maiden Grand Slam semi-final with a win over Caroline Wozniacki at Roland Garros on Tuesday, ex-Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli went to congratulate the Latvian teenager’s coach Anabel Medina. She hugged her while calling her, “Trainer of the year”.
Bartoli is not wrong.
Medina and Ostapenko, who turns 20 on Thursday, only began working together at the start of the clay season in Stuttgart, end of April, and the Spanish ex-world No16 has already helped guide the talented youngster to her first Major semi-final.
Clay is not Ostapenko’s favourite surface but with Medina, the aggressive youngster has managed to accumulate a 14-3 win-loss record (including qualifying) so far on the red dirt.
Ostapenko, who was the Wimbledon junior champion in 2014, lost in the opening round at all four Slams last year but is now one of the last four women standing at Roland Garros, where she is making only her second main draw appearance.
Her win over Wozniacki on a rainy, windy Tuesday in Paris has made her the first Latvian woman to ever reach a Grand Slam semi-final and she will take on No30 seed Timea Bacsinszky on Thursday for a place in the final.
Ostapenko, ranked No47 in the world, is a force of nature on court. She is erratic, explosive, and tough to handle when she is on top of her game. So far this fortnight, she has fired a total of 195 winners across five matches.
She has a lot of power and Medina says harnessing it has been one of the first things they’ve worked on together.
The pair first teamed up in the preseason of 2015. They share the same agent – Ugo Colombini – who suggested Ostapenko go to Valencia for a couple of weeks to train with Medina.
They couldn’t continue because Medina was still playing doubles on tour and Ostapenko needed someone full-time but a shoulder injury that stopped the Spaniard from competing led to another brief stint together in the Asian swing last fall.
After Asia, Ostapenko got back to training with her mother, Jeļena Jakovļeva, but when she saw Medina helping Silvia Soler Espinosa in Dubai and Doha last February, she asked her if she could help her during the clay season.
“I think it works because she likes to work with women because she’s been working with her mother and her fitness coach is also a woman,” Medina, a former world No3 in doubles, told Sport360.
“She’s very talented but I think she needed to be a little more organised on the court because she was playing too much free.
“I tried to tell her a little bit ‘okay if you’re in this situation maybe it’s better to do this way’. But of course I didn’t touch anything in her game because she’s playing very aggressive and she has to keep doing this because that’s the modern tennis being played right now.
“But yes a little bit organised, working a little bit with the serve. I’m very very very happy because I feel that she listens to me a lot and that she believes what we’re talking about. That makes me feel, as a coach, very happy, because sometimes you cannot reach the player but with her, since we started in Stuttgart, she has started to know me much better and has got more confidence (in me).”
Ostapenko is someone who exudes youth and enthusiasm. She grew up taking dance classes and took part in ballroom dancing competitions and says she still practices just for fun.
Her favourite dance? “The Samba,” she says with a laugh because she likes the songs suitable for it.
Her dance background can explain her swift footwork on an incredibly windy day in Paris on Tuesday. It sure comes in handy.
She is the youngest to reach the semi-finals at the French Open in a decade and while she is the least experienced of all the semi-finalists taking to the court on Thursday, Medina believes Ostapenko’s youth can also be an advantage.
“Of course everybody says that when you are young you aren’t thinking too much, in this case for her for sure it helps because she’s like more free,” said the 34-year-old Medina. “During one of the rain delays (on Tuesday) she said ‘I’m young, I have nothing to lose, I have a lot of Roland Garros to play so I’m going to play free’ and that’s a very good mentality that she thinks that and just goes on the court and just plays free.
“I think she’s got a little bit of advantage in this case.”
After playing mix with me I think Ostapenko was hit by the #lendleffect— Bruno Soares (@BrunoSoares82) June 7, 2017
Ostapenko speaks in bite-sized answers but there’s a big, fun personality hiding behind her curt responses in press conferences.
She’s the second-youngest player in the top 47 and believes we could be witnessing a changing of the guard soon in the women’s game.
“Our year, 1997, is pretty strong because we have a lot of players in top 100 and top 50, as well. So I think it’s maybe kind of new generation,” says Ostapenko, who is yet to win a title but made the Charleston final on green clay in April and has made two previous finals in Doha and Quebec City over the last two years.
Medina says it’s surprising Ostapenko has had her first Grand Slam breakthrough on the clay of Roland Garros but that her charge has been training with the mindset of making deep runs at the Majors in general.
“Of course when I came here I didn’t expect I’m going to be in the semis, but I was playing better and better every match. So I think if I keep it up, I think anything can happen,” says Ostapenko, who took out No11 seed Wozniacki, former runner-up Sam Stosur and Olympic champion Monica Puig en route to the semis. .
Ostapenko and her semi-final opponent, Bacsinszky, will both be celebrating their birthdays on Thursday in a funny yet bizarre coincidence. The Swiss No30 seed is eight years older.
It will be their first match against one another with Bacsinszky having experience on her side with this being her second Roland Garros semi-final in three years.
Medina believes in Ostapenko’s chances though.
“I think everybody knows that she has this talent and that she could be in these rounds at a Grand Slam. Maybe it came very early, or maybe not, but I think she worked to be in the semi-finals – she didn’t have any retirements, she was one set down against some opponents, she fought hard to be in the semi-finals every match, so I think she deserves this. And she has the mentality to go for it,” said the Spanish coach.
Medina, who reached the fourth round at Roland Garros in singles in 2007 and won the title twice in doubles in 2008 and 2009, is enjoying her life as a coach so far.
“I think when I was playing I was the kind of player who was very nervous, I suffered a lot, and I couldn’t do my best tennis because of the tension,” she confessed.
“So I think the difference now as a coach is that being outside of the court, is that you can see everything like more open and you see things much more clearly than when you are on the court. So I think I can help a player a lot because of this open view. I’m really enjoying it. I’m a rookie (smiles) but I’m enjoying it.”
She maybe a “rookie” but she’s having one of the best possible rookie starts anyone could hope for.
Medina and Ostapenko are yet to discuss their partnership post-Roland Garros but it’s fair to expect the Latvian would want to continue.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: Novak Djokovic is one of the best losers in professional sport.
Few sports stars can walk off court following a comprehensive defeat then enter the press conference room shortly after and be as insightful as Djokovic is.
Wednesday was no exception.
He was willing to share his feelings of self-doubt, talk about his troubling dip in form and admit that he has no specific plan as of yet to bounce back.
The world No2 lost 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to 23-year-old Dominic Thiem in the Roland Garros quarter-finals on Wednesday, conceding his first ‘bagel’ in a Grand Slam match since 2005.
This time last year, Djokovic had just won four Grand Slam titles in a row, becoming the first man to achieve that feat since the legendary Rod Laver in 1969.
Over the past 12 months, Djokovic has been unable to defend any of those four Majors and with more questions than answers to his current predicament.
While he has managed to perform well in the last few weeks, he remains far from his best and his inconsistency from one match to another is probably what is the most alarming.
Djokovic will have 5805 points on Monday, which is unofficially his lowest points total since June 2007. Exactly a decade.— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) June 7, 2017
The warrior-like Djokovic was nowhere to be seen against Thiem in Paris, even though the Serb entered that match up with a 5-0 record against the No6 seed, including a 6-1, 6-0 drubbing in Rome last month.
“It’s hard to comment (on) the third set. Obviously nothing was going my way and everything his way. Just a pretty bad set,” was all Djokovic could say about that ‘bagel’ Thiem served him.
“He deserved to win. He was definitely the better player on the court today.”
Those very two same players faced off in the semi-finals at Roland Garros last year but it was Djokovic who came through in straight sets easily.
A lot has changed for both competitors ever since and Djokovic knows it.
“More or less all the parts of my game are kind of going up and down. I’m feeling like I’m missing consistency. I play a great match or two in a row, and then I play a completely opposite match. That’s what happened today,” explained the 12-time Grand Slam champion.
“It comes and goes. As an athlete you have to accept that and get used to it. I’m aware of where I am at the moment. I know where I also can be. So I’m working towards that.”
He just started working with Andre Agassi two weeks ago, but still, is a break from the sport worth considering? He doesn’t know but he has not ruled it out.
“Trust me, I’m thinking about many things, especially in the last couple months,” Djokovic admits.
“I’m just trying to sense what’s the best thing for me now. Obviously there has been a lot of changes with the team and so forth. I’m so excited to work with Andre and the new team. At the same time, I have responsibility to the game itself, towards others. We’ll see.
“Obviously it’s not an easy decision to make, but I will see how I feel, anyway, after Roland Garros and then decide what to do next.”
On June 12, Novak Djokovic will not be No. 1 or No. 2 in Emirates #ATP Rankings for first time since March 20, 2011 (325 consecutive weeks).— ATP Media Info (@ATPMediaInfo) June 7, 2017
Djokovic is unspecific when he tries to discuss what the biggest thing is missing from his game right now. He says it’s “technical stuff” and general inconsistency.
But his mentality must be a factor as well. Would a break from the game help? Skipping the grass season doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, especially that he’s only defending third round points at the All England Club and he only typically plays one event on the surface, with no Wimbledon tune-ups.
He could fly to Nevada where Agassi lives and just spend quality time training with him there then take on the North American hard court swing.
It’s true that the four-week break Djokovic took in February did not help him much but perhaps a break while being coached by Agassi would be different.
Agassi left Paris before Djokovic’s fourth round match and wasn’t in the stands on Sunday nor Wednesday. A reporter asked the Serb if his coach’s absence made a different against Thiem but Djokovic immediately rejected that theory.
“Don’t put Andre in the midst of this. This final set, of course, that’s all me,” he assures.
It is ridiculous to suggest that Agassi can make that big of a difference after only working with Djokovic for a total of seven days on court. It remains a good idea to work with the American eight-time Major champion but it will be key to spend enough time together to get Djokovic back on track. Hiring a full-time coach as well for the day-to-day grind of the tour must be high on his priority list.
A year ago, Djokovic had won four straight Slams and made 23 of 24 Slam SFs.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 7, 2017
All four titles go undefended, only once reaching SFs. #rg17
For now, Djokovic is clinging onto a positive perspective and dismisses the notion that he may have lost all motivation after completing the Career Grand Slam last year in Paris.
“It’s an opportunity for me, in a way, some kind of lesson to be learned and to kind of progress in whatever way life wants me to,” he said philosophically.
“So I’m just figuring it all out and trying to be in the moment. Obviously I love this sport. I’m motivated as any other player on the tour. Even though I have played for many years, I still want to do well.”
Djokovic will drop out of the top-two in the world rankings for the first time since 2011 and Doha is the only title he has won in the last 10 months.
“For me, it’s a whole new situation that I’m facing, you know, especially in the last seven, eight months, not winning any tournament, which hasn’t happened in many years,” he adds.
The 30-year-old insists getting back to his best form is something he is motivated to achieve.
“It’s a big challenge, but I’m up for it,” he says.
Against Thiem, Djokovic hit a shocking 35 unforced errors compared to just 18 winners. He faced 15 break points and dropped serve six times against the young Austrian.
21 of Djokovic’s errors came off the backhand – a shot that is usually one of his biggest strengths.
“It was not there for me today, especially in the second part of the match. You know, I was just unable to hit the ball well and many unforced errors. And he was just getting better and better and more confident as the match progressed. That was the case,” he admits.
“If first set went my way, who knows? Maybe the game would change. But that’s sport. That’s how it goes.”
The worrying part for Djokovic is that there is potentially more than one problem to attend to – his tennis, his mentality, his team…
The good news however is that he’s willing to figure it out and not throwing in the towel.
“At the US Open, I just was emotionally very flat and found myself in a situation that I hadn’t faced before in the professional tennis career. It’s obviously tough to get out of it and figure out the way how to move ahead. At least I’m trying,” he concludes.
Rafael Nadal is bracing himself for yet another tough battle against Austrian Dominic Thiem when the pair face off for a fourth time this season in the Roland Garros semi-finals on Friday.
After reaching a record 10th French Open semi-final on Wednesday courtesy of a retirement from his fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, Nadal told reporters in Paris all the reasons Thiem has been a rising force in the men’s game.
“He’s a very good player. He hits the ball very hard. He’s very powerful on both sides. Forehand, backhand, serve. These weapons are quite good. He steps in the court. He has huge potential to tap, and he can hit the ball very hard. He doesn’t give you a lot of options. I will have to play deep balls. You have to put him in uncomfortable situations,” said Nadal, who beat Thiem in Barcelona and Madrid but lost to the Austrian in Rome last month.
“In Rome it was not a good day for me. I was not in a position to play well the way I wanted to. He put me in a difficult situation, so it’s up to me to avoid being put in uncomfortable situations.”
Nadal has dropped just 22 games en route to the semi-finals – the fewest he has ever lost at Roland Garros on his way to the last-four.
Asked if he would rather have been tested more this tournament ahead of his Thiem clash, Nadal said: “Is always the same, no? If it’s too much, is too much. If it’s less, is less. I am in semi-finals. That’s all. I am in semi-finals and with very positive feelings. I played well all the matches here. The rest of the things, you never know. So it’s difficult to say. Better, worse? I want to be in that position. That’s all,” said the 31-year-old.
The Spaniard leads the tour with 41 wins this season, and also owns a tour-leading 22 match victories on clay in 2017.
Carreno Busta, who was playing his first career Grand Slam quarter-final, pulled a left abdominal muscle while serving at 2-5 in the first set and was forced to retire from the match three games later.
Why is Nadal such a good wind player?— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) June 7, 2017
"Is about accept the mistakes and accept the tough things that can happen during the match," he says.
Nadal is just the fifth man in the Open Era to reach 10 semi-finals at the same Grand Slam. Both him and Thiem are yet to drop a set this fortnight and their showdown on Friday is being described as a virtual final.
The 23-year-old Thiem has made it to his second consecutive Roland Garros semi-final by avenging his defeat to Novak Djokovic, who had beaten the Austrian in the last-four here in 2016.
Thiem, seeded No6 in Paris this fortnight, delivered a knockout punch to the no-longer defending champion Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 in the quarters on Wednesday.
“He has really heavy spin. You know, he can also play very quick. He’s got an all-around game. For clay courts, he’s a tough player to play against,” said Djokovic of Thiem.