LONDON—In every department store, at the public park, in your airports and your hotels and your schoolyards, there is a fitting spot that holds Jelena Ostapenko’s tennis game. It is known as the Lost and Found.
The first seven games of Ostapenko’s round-of-16 encounter versus 50th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich were a complete mess. A pair of Ostapenko double-faults in the first game of the match set the tone. Sasnovich held at 15, and then broke again to serve at 3-0.
Ostapenko lackluster? Vividly. The occasional crackling backhand was overwhelmed by the exceptional poor quality of the Ostapenko forehand, which sprayed outside the lines with the velocity of an aerosol can. Accompanied by her trademark combo of a shrug and a smirk, it seemed at this stage that this simply wasn’t going to be Ostapenko’s day.
Said Ostapenko, “I think the opponent played quite well in the beginning. I couldn't get used to the rhythm.”
Sasnovich had begun the match focused and confident. The 24-year-old Belarusian had reached the round of 16 at a major for the first time. In the first round of The Championships she’d taken out two-time champion (and my pick to win the title) Petra Kvitova, 6-0 in the third set. There’d also been solid wins over versatile American Taylor Townsend and the crafty Aussie, Daria Gavrilova, the latter by a resounding score of 6-3, 6-1. It was quite a contrast to last year’s Wimbledon, when Sasnovich had lost in the first round to Ostapenko by the found and lost and found again score of 6-0, 1-6, 6-3.
Yet as much as Sasnovich had begun the match in the driver’s seat, pulling away was not so easy. Despite holding three points to go up 4-0, Sasnovich lost her serve. In the next game, now serving at 1-3, Ostapenko went down love-40, but managed to fight her way out of that hole. Sasnovich held for 4-2.
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Ostapenko is reminiscent of such talents as Fabio Fognini and, long ago, Johan Kriek. These are players graced with superb ball-striking skills—most of all in the power department. But they are also prone not just to the smirk, but also to the pout and the beguiling brand of competitive entitlement that accompanies their creative genius. I hit the ball better than anyone. Why must I be forced to struggle? When the opponent offers resistance, or if the shots aren’t quite clicking, these peacocks will sulk. More errors will happen. The notion of an imminent tank will circle like a vulture. ‘Tis cooler to self-capitulate than give one’s all and potentially come up empty.
Serving at 2-4, Ostapenko double-faulted to go down love-40, then double-faulted again at 15-40. Serving with a double-break in hand, maintaining good length off both sides, Sasnovich was thoroughly in control. In the next game, Ostapenko received a warning for a coaching violation. The advice could have come from any of the nearly 2,000 fans inside Court Three: Put the ball in the court.
In the present but absent manner that personifies Ostapenko’s game and speaking style, she said about that warning, “I didn't even understand for what it was given because I didn't really hear anybody saying anything. Probably somebody from the crowd said something. But I didn't hear anyone from my team saying anything. That's why I spoke to the chair umpire. Actually that code violation made me even more motivated and angry, so I just started to play better.”
Not just aided but also downright fueled by Kjendlie, Ostapenko had stumbled into the Lost and Found, dug in with her hands and found the missing object. She won eight points in a row and 12 of the next 14 to level the set at 5-all.
Here again, alas, Sasnovich squandered an opportunity. Serving at 30-40, Ostapenko hit a second serve that clocked in at 69 M.P.H. There are club players who serve faster. It hardly mattered to Sasnovich, who lined a backhand wide.
Tennis being tennis—even for pros in the round of 16 at Wimbledon—Sasnovich held swiftly at 15 to take the set into a tiebreaker.
What happened next told much about Ostapenko and her competitive makeup. Or was it just the highly finite qualities of a tiebreaker’s duration that compelled the urgency with which she next conducted herself? Over the course of the first seven points, Ostapenko struck an excellent 103-M.P.H. serve down the T, a pair of forehand winners and took command of the court like a field marshal. Swiftly, she served at 5-2.
All the confidence Sasnovich had shown earlier in the set was gone. Even when she crept back in to serve at 4-5, there came a double-fault—her fourth of a set that had promised so much but delivered so little. On the next point, Ostapenko lined a forceful backhand down the line to close it all out in 52 minutes.
Oh, wait a second, that was only the first set. How could I forget the second? The answer: Easily. It literally lasted half as long—26 swift minutes. Ostapenko winning it, 6-0. There it was. I found my game. It was just where I left it.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.