Jelena Ostapenko, perhaps more than any other player, knows that a set-and-a-break deficit is hardly insurmountable. It was the same hole the 20-year-old Latvian climbed out of last year, at Roland Garros, to stun Simona Halep and snare an unlikely Grand Slam title.
So when Ostapenko let a glorious chance to take double-break lead slip away, with a rare error, and another Cinderella story stood across the net at a major tournament, you could understand my sense of déjà vu. Would Danielle Collins, a relative unknown at the beginning of March, begin a turnaround that would continue her already improbable run in Miami?
If Ostapenko was thinking what I was thinking, it didn’t show in her response. Serving at 3-2 in a tight and entertaining match, she confidently held—then proceeded to play two of her best games of the match to end Collins’ fairytale story. Just before the stroke of midnight, as it turns out.
“I was working on my mentality more because I need my confidence and to be more consistent,” Ostapenko told Andrew Krasny after her 7-6 (1), 6-3 semifinal win, which puts her opposite Sloane Stephens in the title match. “Because sometimes I was playing, like, one match amazing and the next one not that great.”
Consistency hasn’t been an issue for Ostapenko in Miami whatsoever. She’s won all five of her matches in straight sets, including victories over Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina, and she’s 5-0 in tiebreakers. Such excellence seems unsustainable, but when you possess shots as consistent and dangerous and Ostapenko’s down-the-line blasts, it can be understood.
While most players go down the line as a last resort, or as a risky attempt to change the tenor of a rally, or terminate it altogether—remember, the net is higher at its ends—Ostapenko tries to generate such opportunities. Last year in Paris, she did so without warning and to great effect, leading to one of the season’s most awe-inspiring performances. In Miami, and in particular against Collins, there was an art to Ostapenko’s combinations. And when she got the openings to let fly a forehand or step into a two-handed backhand, they were master strokes. The racquet was Ostapenko’s paint brush; the court was her canvas.
Collins was tormented by these shots all night, but she could only credit her opponent for such brilliant execution. What Collins may look back on with regret was the one set point she earned, while serving at 6-5 in the first. It was a mid-court backhand from the baseline, but it was rushed and ended up in the net. It was also all Ostapenko needed to begin what would be a swift turnaround.
“I expected that it was going to be a very tough match,” said Ostapenko. “I was just trying very hard and fighting for every point, and I think it helped me a lot.”
It was Ostapenko under duress early, with Collins earning five break points during the No. 6 seed’s first two service games. But Ostapenko saved them all—then broke for a 3-1 lead—before engaging in steady baseline battles, always competitive but almost always determined by what the French Open champion did, or didn’t do. Collins’ gritty game saw her past CoCo Vandeweghe, Donna Vekic, Monica Puig and Venus Williams in Miami, but Ostapenko’s champion-level form was far too high to surpass.
Emboldened by her set-point save, Ostapenko raced to a 7-1 tiebreaker victory, broke Collins to open the second set, and didn’t face sustained pressure the rest of the way.
While this American couldn’t force a third set, Ostapenko’s next and final challenger in Miami will likely pose a greater threat, in a match-up of two of the last four Grand Slam champions.
“She’s a great player and I think it’s going to be a good match,” Ostapenko said of Stephens, who she has never played. “I’m just looking forward to it.”
Given the way Stephens played against Victoria Azarenka on Thursday afternoon, and Ostapenko’s showing against Collins in the evening, so am I.
WTA Miami (March 20-April 1)
-Tennis Channel Plus has Miami Open covered with up to 7 WTA courts, catch all the action live beginning Tuesday, March 20
WTA Indian Wells On-Demand
-Watch your favorite WTA matches from Indian Wells on-demand on Tennis Channel Plus