At the site of her greatest triumph, Jelena Ostapenko wins big again

At the site of her greatest triumph, Jelena Ostapenko wins big again

Can the Latvian, who defeated No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, use a more patient and well-rounded game to go deep at Roland Garros again?

On Thursday, Jelena Ostapenko, who stunned the sports world when she won Roland Garros as a 20-year-old in 2017, returned to the site of her most famous victory, Court Philippe-Chatrier. In the three years since, that stadium has been fitted with a retractable roof and new bleachers. Ostapenko, who is 23 and ranked 43rd now, hasn’t undergone any changes that are quite that drastic, but she looked a little different today, too. Like many of her peers during this autumnal French Open, she was clad all in black, down to the leggings that have become an essential fashion accessory in the chilly weather. The look suits her, and today it seemed to give her game more of a sense of purpose, a calm aggression, that it has been lacking.

What hadn’t changed were the expressions that darted across Ostapenko’s face from one shot to the next. She narrowed her eyes as she bent down to return serve. She opened her mouth as she tossed the ball to serve, and gritted her teeth as she powered through her two-handed backhand. After winning important points, she shot a determined fist-pump in the direction of her coaching team; after losing them, she tilted her head, clutched her racquet to her body, and flashed a pained smile at them. When a close call went against her, she was quizzically skeptical of it.

And when she finished off No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-2, she raised both hands up and shouted a hardy, “Come on!” that echoed through the nearly-empty arena.

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While there were similarities to the Ostapenko of old, her game and her demeanor seemed to have matured. Between points, she was a little less antic. During them, she was a little more measured and thoughtful. In 2017, she won Roland Garros by gripping and ripping every ball that came her away, and aiming for the corners as soon as she could—there were winners, there were errors, and there wasn’t much in between. So far in 2020, Ostapenko is showing that she can rally, she can build points, she can move the ball and her opponent around before going in for the kill.

Against Pliskova, she also showed that she can use finesse and play defense. She hit 27 winners, but more impressive was the way she limited Pliskova to just nine. Ostapenko’s most memorable plays were her sliding defensive gets.

“That’s what I’m working on, my consistency,” said Ostapenko, who has partnered with veteran coach Thomas Hogstedt at Roland Garros. “Still being aggressive player, I think it can bring me a lot of wins, but consistency probably in my game is key.”

Ostapenko has been through a lot in the last three years. In 2019, her form and confidence dipped severely, and she lost in the first round at three of the majors. Then, just as she was starting to play better at the end of that season, her father Jevgenijs died. Ostapenko played the Australian Open in January, but went out in the second round. Today she talked about her work with sports psychologists in recent years.

“I think people in general think that it's like a weakness if you ask somebody to help you,” she said. “But I think it's not. It's just like showing the right way. Why not use somebody's help? If it’s working, why not?”

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What Ostapenko ultimately learned is what every tennis player learns: It’s on you.

“It’s not like the psychologist can really change something. He can kind of maybe give you the way how to do it or something, but it's more like every human is doing it himself,” she said. “It’s big work you have to put in.”

Ostapenko has proven that she can beat anyone when her grip-and-rip game is clicking. The question was: Is there more to her as a player than that? Back on Chatrier today, she showed signs that there could be.

As the women’s draw enters the third round, there are only two other players—Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza—who know what it feels like to hold the winner’s trophy in Chatrier. Ostapenko said today that she keeps her 2017 trophy in a glass case at the club at home in Latvia where she practices.

“Sometimes if I walk by, I can see it,” she said with a smile.

Even if Ostapenko doesn’t take another title home this year, it would be fun to see her make another run. The looks on her face, we can be sure, would be priceless.