PARIS (AP) — A little more than an hour after Jelena Ostapenko won the first tour-level title of her young tennis career — at the French Open, no less — she was asked what her future ambitions are.
With her new silver trophy shining nearby, Ostapenko smiled and said, quite matter-of-factly, “Of course, I would like to win probably all of the Grand Slams. It’s my goal.”
Hey, it was unbridled confidence and a brash style of play that got Ostapenko to this point, two days past her 20th birthday, so why hold back now? With Wimbledon just around the corner, starting July 3, her sudden appearance on the scene makes things more interesting.
Sure, it’s way too soon to declare Ostapenko the next great champion. The history of tennis, as with plenty of other sports, is filled with one-hit wonders or athletes who were quickly labeled “The Next Big Thing” only to fade away quietly.
But with a power-based game that elicits “oohs” and “aahs” from spectators, and a fearless attitude to match, Ostapenko could be one to watch for quite some time.
“If I have a really good day, and I’m hitting really well,” said Ostapenko, who walloped 54 winners during her 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 comeback victory over third-seeded Simona Halep in Saturday’s final at the French Open, “I think anything is possible.”
Definitely showed that over the past two weeks.
The Latvian, who came to Paris ranked 47th and will leave as the youngest member of the top 20 at No. 12, is the first unseeded women’s champion at the French tennis major in 84 years.
She is also the first woman in 48 years to make a Grand Slam title her first title.
“If she plays good,” said Ostapenko’s coach since April, Anabel Medina Garrigues, “it’s very difficult for other players to beat her.”
So bring on the grass at the All England Club, where Ostapenko’s presence could be key.
Ostapenko’s idol growing up, Serena Williams, is taking the rest of the season off while pregnant. Maria Sharapova, who hasn’t played in a Grand Slam tournament for 1½ years because of a 15-month doping ban, announced Saturday that she will not try to qualify for Wimbledon because of an injured left thigh. Victoria Azarenka, another former No. 1 and major champion, is supposed to return after having a baby, but it’s tough to know what to expect from her. Same with Petra Kvitova, a two-time winner at the All England Club, who just began her comeback from a knife attack. And No. 1-ranked Angelique Kerber is in a serious slump, including a first-round exit at the French Open.
The more players who, like Ostapenko, can step up, the better.
“The fact that, at the moment, you kind have a dart board, and you can throw a dart, and any number of women can step up and make it through to a final or win one of these tournaments, I think, creates a lot of interest in the women’s game,” said Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill. “And we just want to create some rivalries now. So I’d love to see Jelena back this up, continue to play well. And then (if) a lot of these top players continue to play against each other, create some rivalries, (there will be) a lot of interest in the women’s game.”
One thing to keep in mind about Ostapenko: Her favorite surface is not the red clay used at the French Open. It’s grass, which adds even more oomph to her already imposing strokes.
She didn’t much care for the green stuff back when she was 15. But by the time she was 17, she won the Wimbledon junior title.
“When I first played on it, I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t really understand how to play on grass,” Ostapenko said. “And I was like, ‘How can people play on grass? It’s like for soccer, made for soccer. It’s strange.’ But then in the next couple of years, I understood how to play there, how to move there, and then I really liked it.”
There’s a lot to like about Ostapenko’s tennis, and her attitude. Both bear watching next month — and over the coming years.