World No. 7 Jelena Ostapenko is “excited” to face Serena Williams for the first time, the Roland Garros champion told reporters ahead of her exhibition match with the American superstar, taking place in Abu Dhabi on Saturday (17:00 local time).
The Latvian youngster, who pulled off one of the biggest surprises of 2017 when she upset Simona Halep to win the French Open last June, has long admired Williams and the pair have never faced each other on tour.
Williams, 36, is set to make her first appearance in almost a year. The 23-time Grand Slam champion hasn’t played a match since winning the Australian Open last January, and had her first child, Alexis Olympia, in September.
“I’m really honoured to play Serena in her first match after her comeback and I think it’s such a great opportunity,” Ostapenko said at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) on Friday.
“She was my idol when I was growing up and I really liked the style she was playing and I think she’s very big for women’s tennis.
“I’m a little excited because I’ve never played her. To play such a great champion of course I have nothing to lose and I will just enjoy the match.”
Saturday’s showdown will mark the first time a women’s tennis match is ever played at the MWTC at Zayed Sports City.
Ostapenko followed her French Open breakthrough by reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and ended 2017 by winning the title in Seoul — the second trophy of her career — and making semis in Wuhan and Beijing before featuring in the WTA Finals in Singapore for the first time. She’s hoping she keep her success going in 2018.
“Of course it’s not going to be easy after such a great season but I prepared well and I’m just going to try and show my best at the Grand Slams and try to be in the top-10,” said the 20-year-old.
Ostapenko hired David Taylor to coach her, alongside her mother, and they will next meet up in Sydney in preparation for the Australian Open.
Back home in Riga, Ostapenko was treated like a megastar after her triumph in Paris.
“When I was back home I got so many awards, like the best athlete in Latvia, the best tennis player, the best athlete in Riga, the biggest person from Latvia in Europe, so I had like five awards so I think it shows that the season was pretty good.”
Things are tight in the WTA at the top and the No. 1 ranking can actually switch hands in the very first week of the new season, with Garbine Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki in with a chance to replace Halep at the summit.
Is getting to No. 1 a goal for Ostapenko?
“I’m not actually thinking about rankings when I play. I’m just really happy when I play well, I’m going to be happy with my game not with the ranking. If I play well I think the ranking will come higher anyway,” she says.
“Last year there were like four or five players becoming No. 1 so I think that means in the top-10 there are many players who can win Grand Slams.”
The big-serving South African edged to victory in two tight sets, 7-6 (6), 6-4, to book his place in Saturday’s showpiece at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi.
Bautista Agut had a free pass through to the final following Novak Djokovic’s injury withdrawal, but faced three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray in a one-set exhibition contest in Friday’s evening match.
The Spaniard took full advantage of a rusty Murray, winning 6-2, with the Scot still on his way back to full fitness following a troublesome right hip problem.
For 2017 US Open finalist Anderson, the prospect of facing Bautista Agut is an interesting one, given that the only time the two players previously met was in 2013, with the latter winning their first-round clash in Valencia 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
“We haven’t played each other in quite a few years so it will be interesting to step on the court against him – a lot has changed since that match a few years ago,” the 6ft 6in star told Sport360°.
“I think we’re both excited to be playing the finals here and Abu Dhabi’s a great spot in which to start the year. I think it’s going to be a good match.”
And, on the evidence of Friday evening, Anderson heads into the finale as favourite given the way he dismissed world No.5 Thiem, a man ranked nine spots higher than him.
“It was a serve-dominated match. Dom’s got a great serve — he can hit it really firm and hard,” added Anderson, who had won all his previous six competitive meetings with the Austrian.
“Midway through both the first and second sets I really felt like I found some good rhythm on his serve – I’m really pleased with that. It was good to get the early break and I served really well throughout the match.
“There wasn’t really a whole lot in it, especially in that first-set tiebreak, we were both hitting some really good serves. He hit a double in the end and that determined the first set, and then I got ahead in the second.”
Following his exhibition win against Murray, Bautista Agut weighed up the prospect of facing the in-form 31-year-old.
He said: “I’m happy with how I played the set against Andy, and on Thursday too (win over Andrey Rublev).
“I’m feeling great on the court. I feel as though I’m playing good tennis and I’m happy to be in the final in Abu Dhabi for the first time. I hope I can play well against Kevin.”
Andy Murray admits there’s still room for improvement following his 6-2 loss in an exhibition set against Roberto Bautista Agut in Abu Dhabi on Friday.
The former world No. 1, now down to 16 in the rankings following a six-month hiatus due to hip injury, agreed to play an exhibition set against Bautista Agut after Novak Djokovic was forced to withdraw from the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) in Abu Dhabi citing pain in his elbow.
Murray looked far from his best, particularly his movement, which has always been one of his greatest assets. His fighting spirit was ever present though as he staved off one break point after the other before finally surrendering.
“I felt better as it went along – obviously a bit slow at the start. Roberto is one of the best players in the world and when you haven’t competed for a long while it takes time to get back up to that pace,” Murray said in his brief on-court interview.
“I started to feel a bit better towards the end, but I’ll need to keep improving for sure.
“It was nice, obviously I was planning on stopping here for a few days to get some practice in with the guys here, and then it was unfortunate that Novak wasn’t able to play. I was here so I agreed to play a set and was very lucky to be able to play out here in front of everyone.”
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Murray was a surprise appearance in Abu Dhabi as he flew to the capital on Thursday morning to practice on the courts of Zayed Sports City before he flies to Brisbane where he is due to kick-off his 2018 season.
He hit the practice courts with his coach Jamie Delgado on Thursday and Friday before taking on Bautista Agut in the evening.
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“It’s always difficult to stay out from the circuit a lot of time and then come back and feel okay in five minutes, no? It takes a while. I think he needs to spend more time on the court to get better feelings, like everybody,” said Bautista Agut of Murray’s form.