Ernests Gulbis—world No. 68, owner of the ATP’s most unique forehand, and a 2014 French Open semifinalist—has been the most recognizable Latvian player in the world for some time. But closing in on Gulbis’ throne as the best Latvian player in the world is an 18-year-old from Riga by the name of Jelena Ostapenko.

The teenager broke into the Top 100 this week for the first time after reaching her first WTA final in Quebec City. In her previous tournament, the U.S. Open, she shot through qualifying, won a round in the main draw, and bageled Sara Errani at the start of their second-round match before eventually falling, 0-6, 6-4, 6-3.

The 2015 season has been a breakthrough of all kinds for Ostapenko, who last year won the girls’ Wimbledon title and was ranked No. 2 in juniors. In February, she won her first $50,000 ITF tournament in Russia as a qualifier. With a wild card at Wimbledon, she notched her first Top 10 win by annihilating Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-2, 6-0.

It’s all quite impressive for someone who carries her schoolbooks along with her racquet bag. Still a high school student, Ostapenko hopes to finish her studies in the next year. But instead of doing so online, she heads back to the classroom when she’s at home in Latvia to take tests. Not surprisingly, before turning pro, American college coaches were knocking at her door.

“I had so many offers but I don’t really want it,” Ostapenko says. “I want to play professionally. When I finish, maybe I’ll go [to college]. But I think I still have a chance to play professionally. If I go to college I miss like four years, and then it’s going to be difficult to come back.”

Ostapenko began playing as a five-year-old in Riga because her mother, also named Jelena, was a tennis coach. “When I was a kid I was with my mom always at the tennis club. And she didn’t say that I have to play tennis, I just liked it,” recalls Ostapenko. “I went by myself to play against the wall, and that’s how I started.”

Latvia's Ostapenko makes quiet rise toward the top with first WTA final

Latvia's Ostapenko makes quiet rise toward the top with first WTA final


Today, Ostapenko’s mom is her full-time coach and often travels with her. Unlike some European players, Ostapenko is adamant about her connection to her home in Latvia, and won’t be changing training bases anytime soon.

“I lived all my life there and I train there and I really like it there,” Ostapenko says. “I don’t want to move anywhere.”

Outside of Gulbis, who was ranked No. 10 just last year, there’s not much in the way of exceptional Latvian tennis talent on the tours. At No. 77, Ostapenko is the first of just four Latvian women listed in the WTA rankings; besides Gulbis, only one other Latvian is ranked in the ATP Top 500.

Ostapenko fell short of becoming the first Latvian in five years to win a WTA title when she lost to Annika Beck in the Quebec City final, 6-2, 6-2. Anastasija Sevastova was the last Latvian WTA champion, with her lone title coming back in 2010.

The 5’10” Ostapenko has an aggressive baseliner’s style of play, combined with just enough patience to wait for the right opportunity. After her 6-4, 6-2 win over big-serving Naomi Broady in the Quebec semifinals, she said, “I tried to stay aggressive and I was playing quite smart. I was not going for every ball—when I felt comfortable I went for it.”

The strategy has been working throughout Ostapenko’s short, already successful career. And she has an even simpler mentality when it comes to winning. “If I play my best tennis I can win,” she says. “You just have to play, you don't have to expect anything.”