Ostapenko, Azarenka find their groove

 - Reem Abulleil

Former Slam champions set-up blockbuster semi-final at Indian Wells

Jelena Ostapenko©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Jelena Ostapenko has tapped into a place of joy and free-flowing tennis on court this fortnight at Indian Wells, which has helped her reach her first WTA 1000 semi-final in three and a half years.

The 2017 Roland-Garros champion knocked out Hsieh Su-Wei, Yulia Putintseva, Iga Swiatek and Shelby Rogers en route to the final four in the California desert, to set up a showdown with two-time major winner Victoria Azarenka.

On a surface Andy Murray described as “painfully slow” and Andrey Rublev said was “super tough to hit a winner on”, Ostapenko clocked 51 winners in her three-set victory over Rogers in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.

The 24-year-old Latvian had had her ups and downs since she lifted the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen in Paris four years ago but she feels like she’s in the right headspace at the moment to cause some serious damage.

“I think I was thinking too much before, and now I'm just trying to enjoy the moment and just try not to think about anything. Just play the game, enjoy it, and if I play well, I'm a dangerous player and I can, I think, beat anyone,” said Ostapenko, who rallied back from 1-3, 0-40 down in the decider against Rogers.

‘Feeling fresh’

After capturing a fourth career title in Eastbourne this past June in the build-up to Wimbledon, Ostapenko was thrown a curveball when she tested positive for Covid-19 on the eve of the US Open.

She made the final in Luxembourg in her first tournament back after quarantining and recovering, and is now bidding to reach a third final of the season.

“It's really great because especially after I couldn't play US Open, I was really sad about it because I was in such a great form before,” said Ostapenko.  

“I think it's another great opportunity (here in Indian Wells) because it's a big tournament. I just enjoy it. It's last couple of tournaments this season. I'm just going to try to enjoy it as much as possible. But I honestly feel like I can continue the season much longer, but there are not many tournaments left.

“Most of the players are very tired, but I don't feel like that. I'm kind of feeling very fresh.”

Vika embracing change

Ostapenko takes a 0-1 head-to-head record into her clash with Azarenka, who is searching for a first final appearance since Ostrava 12 months ago.

Azarenka, a two-time Indian Wells champion, hasn’t dropped a set in wins over Magda Linette, Petra Kvitova, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Jessica Pegula so far this tournament.

At 32 years of age, the former world No.1 is still willing to make changes to her game, and go the extra mile in order to give herself an edge.

The Belarusian admits it hasn’t been an easy journey getting to this mindset, but explained how she’s spent the last month working on ways to become more aggressive, and the adjustments are clearly paying off this fortnight in the desert.

Victoria Azarenka ©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

“I think it took awhile for me to understand maybe I need to implement some new changes in my game because I've been pretty successful with my game over the years. I'm trying to be a little bit more aggressive. The game is faster. There's not that many rallies. Trying to use that into my advantage as well,” said Azarenka.

“I wouldn't say that I'm not an aggressive player, but I think the court coverage and taking maybe less shots to win the point, that's something that is important for me to improve. I think on the baseline, counterattacking, having high intensity, that's something that worked really well for me. It doesn't necessarily work all the time. It's more demanding. I'm looking for things that I can implement that will make it a bit easier for me.

“I'm also not in the beginning of my career to grind every match. It's not necessarily tougher physically, but from one match to another it adds up. I'm looking how I can be more efficient as a player.”

Blockbuster semi

Azarenka won her sole previous meeting with Ostapenko, at Roland-Garros in 2019. Ostapenko is bracing herself for a gruelling encounter, but sounds confident in her chances.

“She's a great player. She's such a champion, a great fighter I think. Both of us are great fighters. It's going to be an interesting match,” said the Latvian power-hitter.

“Of course, I just have to play my game. I'm more focused on my game. Of course, she's very consistent. It's going to be hard. But if I play my game and choose the right shots, I will be consistent, I think it will be very interesting match.”