Birthday girl Ostapenko blazing her own trail
Jelena Ostapenko stands one quick-step away from completing her fairytale run at a major.
Feisty, with a hunger for competition, Jelena Ostapenko is one young woman moving confidently to her own beat. Now she’s through to the big dance.
Win or lose on Sunday, as Latvia’s first Grand Slam finalist, the fist-pumping, pony-tailed trailblazer will be big news back home. She's big news for the game, too.
Clocking groundstrokes and painting the lines with scant regard for the impending moment of closing out such a big moment, the young world No.47 celebrated her 20th birthday with a 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3 upset of Swiss 30th seed Timea Bacsinszky.
Her countryman Ernests Gulbis reached the men’s singles semi-finals in Paris three years ago, but this was breaking new ground.
“Tennis is actually not popular in our country, because it’s kind of an expensive sport,” said Ostapenko, the first unseeded player to reach a women’s Roland-Garros final since Mima Jausovec in 1983. “I think, yeah, probably I will have a lot of attention when I come back home.”
"When I came here, of course I didn't expect I would be in the final, but then first match was a tough match, and I won it. It gave me confidence"
Bacsinszky joins her list of victims, which already includes former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki, 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur and Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig.
It is the nature in which she is notching her victories, which is turning heads and roars of endorsement from the French crowds. Ostapenko has hit an astounding 245 winners in just six matches to reach the decider, the most of any player – man or woman – at this year's tournament.
Her forehand, while at times erratic, was huge against the Swiss, being clocked at faster speeds than men’s world No.1 Andy Murray.
“My forehand? Normally, no, my backhand is my favourite shot,” Ostapenko grinned. “But I was working on the forehand and I think it's pretty good now. I think I feel more confident with my forehand now.”
As an aspiring ballroom dancing prodigy back home, Ostapenko had spoken this week of how her twinkle toes on the dance floor helped her transfer to the tennis court. Her favourite dance is the Samba. It was a tough call she had to make as a teenager which of her two passions to take further.
“I did the ballroom dancing also from five to 12 with the tennis,” she said. “Maybe when I was, like, 15 or something I started really to focus on tennis more.”
A first Grand Slam title on Sunday will be sweet justification for Ostapenko’s move to tennis. A first-time meeting with third seed Simona Halep will crown the newest major champion.
“I mean, when I came here, of course I didn't expect I would be in the final,” Ostapenko said. “But then first match was a tough match, and I won it. I think it kind of gave me confidence. Then every match I was playing better and better and I got my confidence, and I think it works pretty well.”
It’s a mantra she will have already subscribed to from her ballroom dancing days – one step at a time. One final step to execute.