With no title to defend, Ostapenko has attacked her way into the semis

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Jelena Ostapenko will face Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon semifinals. (AP)

Jelena Ostapenko has a new favorite phrase: “At the end, I finished really confident.”

That’s what the 21-year-old Latvian said after her 7-6 (4), 6-0 win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the fourth round on Monday. And that’s what she said again after beating Dominika Cibulkova 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. Looking at how Ostapenko closed out both of those victories, it wasn’t a surprise to hear her talk about late-match surges in confidence. After serving up a second-set bagel to Sasnovich, she held serve at love to beat Cibulkova. Her last two shots on Wednesday were a forehand winner and a backhand winner, both of them belted without a hint of hesitation.

As Ostapenko also likes to say: “I’m not afraid to miss.”

Paradoxically, because of that, she’s making her shots. Her match with Cibulkova was rightly billed as a slugfest between two modest-sized players who wield as much power per pound as anyone in tennis. But when it came to dictating the rallies, it was no contest. Ostapenko ended up ahead in the winner count over Cibulkova by an astounding margin of 33 to six. Close to half of the Latvian’s 70 winning points came on her own ungettable shots.

WATCH—Match point from Ostapenko's win over Cibulkova in quarterfinals:

Ostapenko never let the Slovakian catch her breath on her serve, rocketing her returns down the line, earning 11 break points, and breaking five times. While Ostapenko was broken three times herself, she added just enough variety to her serve to stay one break ahead. She disguised her kick serve down the middle in the ad court especially well.

Ostapenko has been riding on two productive mental tracks over the Wimbledon fortnight.

On the one hand, she says she still takes confidence from the fact that she won the girls’ event here in 2014. She has good memories of the Wimbledon grounds, and she knows her see-ball, obliberate-ball style can work on grass. Last year, after winning the (adult) French Open, many expected her to crash out early here, the way Simona Halep did this year. And that may have happened to Ostapenko as well, if it had been any other major than Wimbledon; as it was, she made the quarterfinals.

“I think it’s great when you win a Grand Slam in juniors, you’re ready to play in women’s tennis,” Ostapenko said this week. “Especially here on grass for me, it’s just a very special place to be.”

On the other hand, Ostapenko seems to have been freed up after her abbrievated French Open title defense, in which she lost in the first round. Now, she says, she feels like she’s starting over as a player. She’s no longer the champion at Roland Garros, which—in another paradox—has taken some weight off of her shoulders.

“I had all the pressure [in Paris], now it’s gone,” Ostapenko said, “Finally, it’s gone. Now it’s another tournament, another great opportunity for me.”

Now she that she has nothing to defend, Ostapenko can do what comes naturally: Attack. We’ll see if she’s still repeating her new favorite phrase—“In the end, I felt really confident”—after the final on Saturday.

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.


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