“She is young and reckless, in a sense. She’s not afraid of anything. She’s a big hitter. She’s a baby, but she’s a beautiful baby. The way she hits is fascinating.”
Those were Timea Bacsinszky’s words describing Jelena Ostapenko after she lost to the 20-year-old in the Roland Garros semi-finals.
Ostapenko’s sheer power and carefree shot-making has mystified her opponents on her way to the Roland Garros title.
Entering the tournament as the world No47, Ostapenko had never won a tour-level title, had never won a match at the French Open, and never featured in the second week of a Grand Slam.
Her three-set win over No3 seed Simona Halep in the final on Saturday has changed all that.
Becoming Latvia’s first-ever Grand Slam champion, Ostapenko blasted through the draw, taking out reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig, ex-US Open winner and 2010 French Open runner-up Sam Stosur, ex-world No1 and former US Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, and finally two-time Roland Garros finalist Halep.
Ostapenko, who turned 20 four days ago, almost came out of nowhere and left a lasting impression on everyone who has set eyes on her.
The legendary Martina Navratilova told Ostapenko’s coach Anabel Medina that the strokes of the young power-hitter remind her of those of Lindsay Davenport.
Darren Cahill, Halep’s coach, said of Ostapenko: “When she’s hot you don’t touch the ball, you become a spectator.”
The freshly-crowned French Open champion hit 299 winners over seven matches this fortnight. Her last point of the tournament was a bullet of a return winner down the line.
“I still cannot believe I won the title, because my dream came true. So, yeah, I was just trying to go for shots when I could and match point. And I was just, ‘Okay, I have nothing to lose, I’m just going to hit winner’. Or if I miss, okay, I have another one,” said Ostapenko of that last shot that secured her the title.
She was down 4-6, 0-3 against Halep in the final, and again down 1-3 in the decider, but came back to take the trophy.
“I’m surprised,” said her mother, Jelena Jakoleva, with a smile after the final.
Ostapenko had been coached by her mother all her life but she added Medina to her coaching team at the start of the clay season. It is a partnership that has paid immediate dividends.
“There are no words for that,” Medina said of her charge’s unexpected comeback against Halep.
“I knew she can hit that hard, but I am really surprised how she handled the two weeks, the pressure, the situations in every match. She lost the first set in many of her matches but she kept working and was very hungry, she wanted to win. Even when she made the quarter-finals she was happy but not excited. It wasn’t okay to be where she was, she wanted more.”
Ostapenko made history in more ways than one on Saturday. She became the first major winner from her country, the first unseeded women’s champion at Roland Garros since 1933, the youngest women’s Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 US Open… the list is quite extensive.
“I heard some stories that I made a lot of history here and for my country and for the tournament also but I’m just really happy to play here,” said an unfazed Ostapenko.
“The president already called my mom. I think I expect a lot of attention from Latvia because I made history and it’s a big day today for me.”
The former Wimbledon junior champion speaks the same way she plays. Energetically, but in short, rapid, successive sentences.
Medina describes her as “hyperactive” and her mother says she was a handful when she was young.
“She was the same when she was a kid, it was very difficult. She was dancing, swimming, playing tennis, football… so many things,” said Jakoleva.
The combination of power and “recklessness” as Bacsinszky said made Ostapenko an unstoppable force in Paris.
The young Latvian says she is just as daring off the court.
“I’m also a bit like an extreme person,” said Ostapenko.
“I like extreme things and probably that’s why I play aggressive tennis. I like for example to go on crazy roller coasters or to jump like sky jumps, I like those kind of things. When I was in Auckland I really wanted to jump from the tower but my mom didn’t really want me to do this because she thought it’s dangerous but I’ll maybe do it next year.”
Huge congrats to @anabelmedina , has a lot of credit for this title. Amazing work w Ostapenko and an even better person.— Bruno Soares (@BrunoSoares82) June 10, 2017
But where does all that firepower come from?
“I think I’m really powerful and I was just born with that power probably. Of course I’m working in the gym and stuff but I think I was just born like this,” she says with a smile.
Ostapenko grew up competing in ballroom dancing alongside her tennis and only fully devoted herself to the latter when she was 15 years old.
Till this day, she practices ballroom dancing four times a week when she is at home in Latvia.
“I went to one of her lessons in Riga and I saw her dancing with the teacher, I think it’s something that makes her feel better, she really enjoys doing it, so why not keep going?” says Medina.
After being coached by her mother for so long, what drove them to consider bringing in a fresh set of eyes to help coach Ostapenko?
“It’s very difficult to be the mother and coach all the time. Being together all the time, on court, in the hotel, in breakfast, dinner, lunch, shopping, it’s difficult,” said her mother.
During the first week, Jakoleva watched her daughter’s matches from home and even when she flew in to Paris, she followed her fourth round against Stosur and quarter-finals against Wozniacki on TV in her hotel.
“I think Jelena has more focus if I am not in the stands,” admitted Jakoleva.
She was able to perform with or without her mother in the stands.
Medina is impressed the most by Ostapenko’s self-belief and it’s evident in how she navigated those two weeks.
“I think if I have really good day and I’m hitting really well, I think anything is possible,” is how the 20-year-old puts it simply.
She certainly proved that in Paris!