Jelena Ostapenko regains consistency without sacrificing attacking edge | Tennis

Even in an era of professional tennis filled with athletes who can obliterate any ball off their groundstrokes from any part of the court, Jelena Ostapenko is unique. Her strength doesn’t simply lie in her power but the natural timing that allows her to change the direction of any speeding ball, the precision of her early, flat shots and, most importantly, her unrelenting belief that she must be in control of every point of every match. When in full flow and absurdly aiming for every line, she will find them.

The clearest example of Ostapenko’s talents came in the biggest, most tense moment of her career, when aged 20 she marched into the 2017 French Open final before trailing Simona Halep 0-3 and facing three separate break points in the third set. With her back to the wall, Ostapenko swung and swung until she changed her own destiny, reeling off the final six games to win her first grand slam title.

Having punched herself into a new existence as a grand slam champion with a target on her back and a high-risk style that is so hard to consistently maintain, a dip in Ostapenko’s form after her win was widely anticipated. While it did not come immediately, by 2019 Ostapenko had fallen as low as No 83 in the world. Some small positive runs followed, and occasionally enough shots landed in for a big win, but all too often Ostapenko would step into matches determined to hit her opponent off the court and self-sabotage with unforced errors in the process.

As the great BNP Paribas Open begins in Indian Wells this week, however, Ostapenko arrives as one of the stories of the season. After being ranked outside the top 50 last year, she is now No 12, on the verge of returning to the top 10 and rising quickly. Since September she has pieced together one of the most consistent periods of her career, performing week after week and compiling a 23-8 record.

While her gradual rise up the rankings initially flew somewhat under the radar, last month she burst back into the spotlight by embarking on a nine-match winning streak in the Middle East, winning the Dubai WTA 500 event before reaching the semi-final at the WTA 1000 in Doha. Across her nine wins, Ostapenko defeated six different grand slam champions: Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Barbora Krejcikova and Garbiñe Muguruza.

For most big-hitting tennis players in a long slump, the route to sustained success is always said to be by playing more consistent, cerebral tennis, such as adding more top spin and tempering the urge to attack every shot. Ostapenko has certainly attempted to broaden her skill set at times, incorporating more drop shots and patience while echoing those sentiments in interviews.

Yet as she discussed her revival in the Middle East last month, she had other ideas, instead doubling down on her need to lace every point with attacking play. “I was trying to be more accurate and just put the ball in play, which I shouldn’t,” she told WTA insider. “I should go for my shots and play my aggressive game. I felt like I have to be even more aggressive sometimes.”

Jelena Ostapenko poses with her championship trophy after winning the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in February. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“Aggressive” is the most overused word in the sport, a sentiment that even some of the most defensive players on both tours use to describe their tactics, but Ostapenko’s commitment to attacking tennis runs deep. She believes that tennis should be played on the front foot, taking risks and controlling your own destiny, and she has frequently shown no respect for players who rather live off their consistency and their opponents’ errors.

When she was younger, Ostapenko’s abhorrence of defensive opponents even extended to the best players in the world. When the 19-year-old Ostapenko played against the then No 4, Agnieszka Radwanska, in 2016, she spent her changeovers during the loss denigrating her opponent’s game to her coach and vowed never to play her again. “She doesn’t play at all,” Ostapenko said. “She plays like an amateur. Our amateurs play better in Latvia.”

While Ostapenko refuses to temper her playing style, her revival has not merely been a consequence of hitting a purple patch. There have been only a few matches where her winners flowed freely, particularly when she dismantled Muguruza and Krejcikova in consecutive matches in Doha. Otherwise, she has dug out wins from dire positions, sometimes while playing far from her best tennis. In Dubai she played three brutal three-set matches in succession, against Swiatek, Kvitova and Halep, recovering from a set down in all and saving a match point against Kvitova.

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    She showed that even with her low-percentage game, she can still give herself the best chance of success by controlling what she can control, remaining mentally present in every point, match and tournament, and not allowing her emotions to cloud her play. In the process she has found a rare period of consistency: since September she has lost only to current or former top 10 players in completed matches.

    This steadyfast consistency will not hold forever; there will be plenty of volatility in Ostapenko’s results as long as she maintains her commitment to attacking at all costs, but she has put herself in the position to be a contender once moreand the top levels of her sport are enriched with her presence.

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