NEW YORK—“I was actually, like, flying in the cockpit,” Jelena Ostapenko said when she made her first trip back to her native Latvia after winning the French Open in June.
“When I saw the red carpet out of the plane, I was a little bit nervous. I didn’t really want to step off the plane.”
Red carpets, flights in the cockpit, parades in her honor: This is what life is like these days for the sport’s newest and least likely celebrity. At a time when tennis had begun to feel middle-aged, Ostapenko has given it a much-needed jolt of youthful vigor. The 20-year-old didn’t just win in Paris; she crash-landed on the city, and the game, like a meteor.
According to her coach, Anabel Medina Garrigues, speed is always of the essence with Ostapenko—she plays fast, walks fast, talks fast, thinks fast. And on Thursday at the US Open, she won fast, beating Sorana Cirstea, 6-4, 6-4, in a crisp 90 minutes. Only her 13 double faults made the match last as long as it did.
As usual, Ostapenko made up for her serving woes with her baseline brilliance. After starting the year ranked 44th, she has now advanced to the third round or better at all four majors in 2017.
Aside from being nervous on the plane back to Latvia, Ostapenko doesn’t show any signs of self-doubt or anxiety about her new status. Watching her on the court, and listening to her in press conferences, it’s clear that “keeping it simple” is one of her gifts. When she answers questions, she leans in, smiles and says whatever comes to mind, no more and no less. There’s no attempt at evasion, and no attempt to come up with a clever or cute answer.
On Tuesday, she was asked what her expectations were for her next match.
“I mean, I’m just going to try my best,” Ostapenko said. “As I said, take one match at a time.”
Coming out of other mouths, those words might have sounded curt. Coming from Ostapenko’s, they sounded logical.
Ostapenko brings the gift of simplicity to the court, as well. She knows that she can hit winners from anywhere, so she tries what would for other players would be unacceptably risky shots. The difference with Ostapenko is (a) how many times she can put the ball exactly where she wants it to go; and (b) how good she is at accepting the fact that sometimes the ball isn’t going to go where she wants it go, and moving on.
For all of Ostapenko’s high-risk play, this year she hasn’t tended to have the unremittingly awful days that so many of her fellow sluggers do. Her matches are roller-coasters—five of her seven wins in Paris came in three sets—but I think that has more to do with her ever-vulnerable serve than it does her ground strokes. The most important thing is that even when she misses, she doesn’t start to doubt or second-guess herself.
On Tuesday this was made most clear when Ostapenko served at 3-4 in the first set. She double-faulted five times in that game alone, and faced six break points, yet she never stopped aiming for the lines, and she eventually held. Cirstea was so frustrated that she was quickly broken in the next game.
“This is almost a case study,” commentator Elise Burgin said during Ostapenko’s long service game. “It’s remarkable that even after all of those double faults, she can gather herself, gather her emotions.”
All of this makes Ostapenko exciting and disorienting to watch. She’s never afraid to take an offensive shot from her opponent and try an even more offensive shot in return. On big points, she’s not afraid to try to hit what most people would consider a ludicrously low-percentage winner. Ostapenko’s theory of shot selection can be summed up in the way she described her match-winning backhand return against Simona Halep in the French Open final.
“I was just, ‘OK, I have nothing to lose,” she said. “I’m just going to hit winner. Or if I miss, I have another one.”
Ostapenko can stay loose because, in her mind, there’s always another ball coming that she can, more likely than not, smack past her opponent.
We’ll see how far keeping it simple takes her in New York. There’s obviously plenty of opportunity in her section, which was opened up by Angelique Kerber’s first-round loss. When she won today, Ostapenko didn’t waste any time: She smiled, wrinkled her nose a little, hit a ball into the stands, and headed straight for the net.
In the back of her mind, Ostapenko has an advantage over virtually all of her opponents here: She knows that she can a major title. On the biggest points of all, she can think, “I’m just going to hit a winner”—and make it happen.
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