”F***, dude! How did it happen? Ostapenko just won a Grand Slam…” These were words from my friend (non-tennis player) calling me a few minutes after world number 47 Jelena Ostapenko crushed another backhand return winner down the line on a championship point against Simona Halep, thus winning the French Open. ”She hits her forehand faster than Andy Murray…” my friend continued. And I said: ”Yes, she hit 164 winners more than Rafael Nadal in this tournament…” Crazy stats!
At the age of 20, Jelena Ostapenko proved that anything is possible! You just have to believe it. She clinched the first Grand Slam singles title not only for her, but also for Latvia as a country. In my opinion, this achievement is the greatest achievement in Latvian sports history. With all due respect to Latvian Olympic medal winners, World champions, 1996 Stanley Cup champion Sandis Ozolins, our national football team qualifying for Euro 2004 tournament and Ernests Gulbis making semi-finals in French Open in 2014, but winning one of the most prestigious individual sporting events in the world… That stands out!
Back to what my non-tennis playing friend said… He was really surprised! He is a big sports fan, but he didn’t see that one coming. I think that no one did! Even the world’s biggest tennis experts didn’t see it coming either. But who cares? The only thing which matters, is that Ostapenko saw it coming. Did you see the way she celebrated? She dropped her racket, jumped up a few times and that’s it. No tears, no falling down on her knees, no laying on the clay and drawing hearts… I think that it is because she was almost sure that she will do it at some point in her career.
I know Jelena Ostapenko since she was about 8 years old. She was very active kid and she loved competing. She still loves it! And the funny thing is that in her childhood, she was playing the same tennis, behaving the same way and carrying the same confidence we all saw in this year’s French Open. Already back then if felt like she knew that one day she will win something big and make a living by playing tennis. The only difference was that she was younger, shorter and everybody was calling her Alona. Check out the video from 2011, when Ostapenko won the prestigious Les Petits As 14&under tournament. She was 13.
Jelena Ostapenko has always been number 1 in Latvia in every age group. And she was really good not only for Latvian standard. She has always been top player in her respective age group in the World, as well. She has won huge amount of international junior tournaments including Les Petits As (unofficial 14&under World Championship) and Wimbledon Junior Championship, which is one of the World’s premier 18&under tournaments. She made a debut in WTA rankings at the age of 14 and cracked top 100 at the age of 18. Impressive, right?
My sister Darta Elizabete Emulina is the same age. They started competing against each other at the age of 9, later represented Latvia in many European junior championships and also in the Fed Cup. My sister was always second. I always told her being second in the country is not bad… but she always hated it. She wanted to be first. She tried her best, but Ostapenko was just too good!
Jelena has proved that it is very important to train smart. She has travelled to tennis academies from time to time, worked with great coaches and learnt from them, but mostly Ostapenko has trained at home in Latvia with her mother and they have done a really good job by practicing with an intent and purpose. They have trained just as much as Jelena needs and they have worked on specific things she needs for that aggressive playing style. They haven’t wasted the practice time by uselessly hitting tennis balls… Her mother definitely knows Jelena the best!
Ostapenko hasn’t trained a lot. Don’t get me wrong! She has always practiced daily and spent uncountable amount of hours on court hitting balls and off court doing her fitness training. She is a true professional. But it is not like she has spent years in fancy tennis academies doing Spanish X drills all day long. I know many players who practice more than Ostapenko, but struggle to get professional ranking points at all, not talking about playing in the Grand Slams and moreover winning them. The truth is… Sometimes it is not enough with just hard work. Talent is very important and Jelena is very talented.
If we speak from the technical standpoint, then she has an amazing ”feel” for the ball and that ”feel” helps her to play so aggressively. She reads the ball incredibly well, starts moving to the ball at the right moment and she is able to hit the ball at the perfect moment thus using the maximum energy of the incoming ball and her body going through the shot. She has a perfect timing. I guess you can’t hit more than 300 winners during a tournament, if your timing sucks, can you?
But her biggest talent is her mind. She loves competing and she loves winning. Mental part of tennis very often is the least practiced aspect of all and I don’t know, if Ostapenko has practiced it or it happens naturally, but she is a mental beast! She has always been a big match player and she never gives up. There have been so many matches in her life when she comes back from difficult situations, turns those matches around and eventually wins. Sometimes it feels like Ostapenko lets her opponents to get a lead and feel good for some time. Then she tortures them a little bit and eventually finishes them with a knockout punch. Just like it happened in a recent final against Halep…
Jelena speaks her mind very clearly. If she likes something, she says it. If she doesn’t like something, she says it. And she doesn’t care much what other think. And it helps her tennis. I think that a little ”egoist” lives in every tennis player. Well… at least it should! Tennis is an individual sport and you are alone on the match court, so you just have to deal with everything on your own out there. She has a really suitable character for tennis.
With the right mindset, suitable playing style and years of smart work, Jelena Ostapenko is a new Grand Slam champion! Am I surprised? No! I am a big believer that anything can happen and everybody has a chance. We just have to believe in ourselves, do our best and results will come. Moreover, you just read how successful Jelena was in her junior career, so it was just a matter of time for her to succeed on professional tour.
However, I am a little bit surprised how it happened. I know that she plays aggressive tennis, but in this tournament she broke all the laws of physics, all the laws of court geometry and rewrote the ABC of tennis. She was hitting a tennis ball so flat that I had no idea that it is possible to hit so flat. Most of her groundstrokes had less than 1000 revolutions per minute (RPM). On average players use much more spin and have at least 2000 RPM. There were very few defensive or neutral rallies for Ostapenko. Most of the time there were pure offence with flat shots from both wings even from defensive situations. In situations where other players would have played defensive slice backhand cross court, Jelena Ostapeno went for a flat winner down the line. Have you heard about returning the first serve safe, aiming cross court and starting the rally? Bull****! Jelena was firing down the line return winners while standing in the doubles alley with both feet. That was a special performance and that is her unique style of play.
I wish Jelena the best in the future and I am very curios for how long she will be able to keep up such an aggressive, and risky style of play without letting too much errors to creep in her game. Her French Open performance was something out of this world and now I will have to spend hours speaking with my Latvian students trying to defend my opinion about using a healthy topspin, playing cross court on deep balls and waiting for that shorter and slower ball to go down the line :).
The question people ask me a lot these days is: ”Can Jelena Ostapenko do it again?” I think she can! And even if she can’t, who cares? She already is a Grand Slam champion and nobody can take it away from her!
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