When a 20-year-old unseeded Jelena Ostapenko pummeled her way through the French Open draw to lift a maiden Grand Slam trophy, the tennis world stood back in awe – not just of her achievement, but the manner in which she achieved it.
A player, who turned 20 midway through the tournament, ranked 47 in the world, and yet to win a tour-level title in her young career thus far, took out the likes of Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, firing 299 winners over seven matches, to clinch the 2017 Roland Garros crown.
That fortnight, Ostapenko looked almost careless in her shot-making, and fearless in her approach and delivery.
Nearly 12 months on, the Latvian is ranked No.5 in the world and has a new coach, David Taylor, on her team, working with her alongside her mother, Jelena Jakoleva.
The 45-year-old Taylor, who previously worked with Stosur and Ana Ivanovic, is amused by this younger generation of tennis players.
“Absolutely no respect for anyone in terms of tennis ability. People used to be scared and now that’s completely gone. It’s a striking difference in the generation,” explained Taylor to a small group of reporters in Rome last week.
“They walk on, they really believe they can beat top-10 players, and that’s the biggest change and they’re going to come out swinging.
“I think Aljona (another way to say Ostapenko’s first name) encapsulated all that at the French and she showed that. People look at that, parents… I was coaching Naomi Osaka at the time and said ‘hey, look at that’. So for sure that breeds this fearlessness in these young players.
“I think this generation is less respectful against everything, everything is possible now. Not in a negative way. They want everything so much quicker and I think that’s tennis also, they want to be top players straightaway. They don’t want to learn for two years, ‘no I want to be now’ and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Indeed there is a palpable impatience to Ostapenko, and it shows both on the court and off it.
A few weeks after she won at Roland Garros, she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. By autumn, she won a second-career title, in Seoul, and made back-to-back semis in Wuhan and Beijing.
Starting this season as an established top-10 player and a Grand Slam champion, Ostapenko admits she was struggling with the heightened expectations of her, but that struggle didn’t last long, because by March, she had reached the final of Miami – one of the biggest events of the year outside of the majors.
If you take away the 2,000 points Ostapenko earned for her French Open triumph, she would be ranked No. 11 in the world right now.
“I think she’s not a one-trick pony at all and she’s here to stay at the top for a long time,” insists Taylor.
“I think the most important thing about that playing style is playing how you must, not how you feel. If you’re nervous, don’t play nervous. If a second serve return is sitting there, you attack it, because that is your biggest chance to win the point. But if you do a lot of forward thinking or predictable thinking, you may play it short down the middle hoping the girl misses.
“I think this is the biggest thing and that’s why she won the French Open because she was able to play how she must.
“Now she’s going to be more nervous going in, more expectation. There was no expectation on someone 50 in the world ever winning a Grand Slam, it’s very rarely done in our sport. But I think she’s dealt with it so far incredibly well.”
Ostapenko heads to the French capital with a couple of quarter-final appearances under her belt on clay, in Stuttgart and more recently in Rome, where she lost in a high-quality three-setter to Maria Sharapova.
The Latvian loves the clay, and has the footwork required to master the art of sliding on it. She had been taking ballroom dancing lessons for years, and she added boxing to her training regimen two months ago.
“At the beginning of the year, it was very tough for me to start the year because I was the favourite in almost all the matches. But now I got used to that,” admits Ostapenko.
“And after playing the final in Miami, I think I’m doing much better. And I’m still not thinking about that I have to defend a title. I’m just thinking to go there and have like two great weeks and just to enjoy the time there.”
Ostapenko has a fiery personality that erupts just as forcefully as he groundstrokes. Taylor, who joined the team last December, isn’t trying to extinguish that fire in his pupil, but instead, use it to her advantage.
“I’ve never coached anyone probably so emotional,” said Taylor.
“Ana Ivanovic had this incredible love of the game, was very emotional, but a different time of emotion.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to give her more freedom but then temper that somehow in the right direction because I think this type of personality can sometimes work against you, and we’ve seen this in the past, but you never want to take someone’s personality away from them, because I think that’s probably their biggest asset.”
Ostapenko singles out her mentality as the one thing she feels has improved the most over the past 12 months. Taylor is trying to help her with her point construction to give her more ways to get to the right balls.
The Aussie concedes that joining a mother-daughter team is never an easy task but he has experience from his time working as a hitting partner for Martina Hingis, who was coached by her mother Melanie Molitor.
“It’s a very similar dynamic and the mum will always be the most influential person in her career, there’s no doubt, and I’m not trying to replace that. I’m trying to add,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s been difficult for sure and there’s a little bit of a language barrier. Aljona’s mum has been fastly improving her English so it’s been good. But the fact that they chose to bring someone else into this close-knit (team) shows they want to improve and open up.”
She’s only 20, but Ostapenko has been accustomed to being at the top in whatever age-group or level she was competing in. She was ranked No. 2 in the world as a junior and won the girls’ singles title at Wimbledon in 2014.
The biggest challenge for Taylor is probably convincing her to operate in a different way.
“She’s had so much success doing what she’s doing. She obviously wants to improve, that’s the first thing she told me on the phone. But someone who has had success at every level of tennis, biggest 14s tournament in the world, biggest 16s, junior Grand Slam, Grand Slam, it’s an incredible rise, and here’s someone coming along saying ‘hey we need to work on this’… ‘Why? I’m doing well’. Of course she is,” he says.
“But for longevity of the game and awareness, tactical awareness, there’s just so many more eyes on her. There’s a lot of good coaches out there and there’s so much information we have access to now, with SAP on board.
“I think I’m somewhat winning the battle and her mother is a fantastic help.”
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