During the quiet weeks of warmup tournaments leading up to Wimbledon, the essence of Jelena Ostapenko was unleashed in full. For an hour of her opening-round encounter against Canada’s Rebecca Marino in Birmingham, she was on fire, winners searing from her racket as she swiftly built a 6-2, 5-1 lead.
But just as she seemed to be on the way to an easy victory, her level fell off. She found herself in a tussle, losing six games in a row before finally recovering to edge out the victory in three sets. Almost any player would have been unhappy with the collapse, but even in their frustration most people tend to deliver their thoughts with some level of tact. That is not Ostapenko’s style.
“She didn’t really do anything,” said Latvia’s Ostapenko to gasps from the crowd. “She didn’t change anything until that score. Then I started to fight against myself, I started to miss some balls. But I’m glad I won because, I mean, my level is better than hers and I showed it,”
The video of Ostapenko’s interview, posted on Twitter, immediately went viral, her plain speaking outraging some and angering others. It is not pleasant, nor does it betray even a hint of consideration for the feelings of her opponent, but Ostapenko’s brand of honesty is revelatory and interesting in its own way. Away from the cameras, tennis players are constantly appraising the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, and not always in a constructive manner. Ostapenko says her thoughts out loud.
“Honestly, in the interviews you have to say what you think,” she said on Friday afternoon at Wimbledon. “What’s the reason of giving interviews if you’re not going to say what you’re thinking? I was always honest in the interviews and also with my friends and my close people, and that’s what they like about me.”
Ostapenko’s attitude has not always endeared her to her peers, but it is why she had the audacity to believe at 20 years old, while ranked 47th, that she could win the French Open. It may also be why she is threatening to piece together another big run. On Friday, seeded 12th, she defeated Irina-Camelia Begu 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 to consolidate her rising form by reaching a grand slam fourth round for the first time in four years.
From a 3-6, 0-1 deficit, Ostapenko won nine games in a row and as her lead increased she showed more of the best of herself. As she crushed the ball and pinned Begu far behind the baseline, her vicious, precise forehand winners drew gasps from the No 3 Court crowd. When in full flow, she is one of the most spectacular ball strikers not only because of the raw power she generates with minimal effort, but also her precision, her ability to hit every line on the court.
Afterwards, Ostapenko spoke in depth about the years since her triumph at the French Open in 2017. After her victory, she had returned home to a red carpet laid out at the airport, a scenario that stressed her out even more than a grand slam final. As she adjusted to her new life and status as a major champion, she said it took years for her to move on.
This year, she clearly has. After being ranked outside the top 50 last year, Ostapenko gradually dragged herself back up the rankings, announcing her return to the top 15 with a title in Dubai. But such is her inconsistency, her form immediately cascaded and she lost four of her next five matches, including a second-round defeat at the French Open. She attributed her struggles to a wrist injury.
As the grass season began, the 25-year-old’s form returned. Last week, she reached the final of Eastbourne, losing to Petra Kvitova. This week, she is back in the second week of a grand slam tournament for the first time since Wimbledon in 2018, when she reached the semi-final. She will next face Tatjana Maria after her victory over fifth seed Maria Sakkari. Asked about her outlook on the rest of her event, Ostapenko shrugged: “Especially when I win, I think I’m a dangerous player for other opponents so I just hope I can keep it up.”