Exclusive interview: Jelena Ostapenko achieved a shock French Open triumph at 20 years old but is still chasing a second Grand Slam final appearance
As Emma Raducanu looks ahead to the next phase of her career, the 18-year-old Briton would do well to consider the experience of another young player who was one of the sport’s most unlikely Grand Slam champions.
A sparkling future beckoned for Jelena Ostapenko in 2017 when, just four days past her 20th birthday, she became the first unseeded player for 84 years to win the French Open title. However, the Latvian is still waiting to make her second appearance in a Grand Slam final.
“Of course it’s very hard to win a Grand Slam, but it’s probably harder to stay at the top than it is to get there,” Ostapenko told The Independent this week. “Everyone expects you to win every tournament, to play at the same level all the time and to beat everyone.
“You have so much attention from the media, you do so many photo-shoots and everyone wants your attention, but you still have to find time to practise. You mustn’t let those other things take up more of your time than your tennis. In your home country, it’s like you’re a hero. Of course Britain is way bigger than Latvia, but I think maybe it was even harder for me, because we’re such a small country. Everyone knows everyone in Latvia.”
Like Raducanu, who at the US Open last week became the first qualifier to claim a Grand Slam singles title and the first woman to win only their second Grand Slam tournament, Ostapenko went into the French Open four years ago as a rank outsider. She had never won a tournament on the main tour and had never won a match at Roland Garros. However, the then world No47 went on to become the first woman to secure her maiden tour-level title at a Grand Slam event for 38 years, with a stunning display of attacking tennis.
Although Ostapenko eventually rose to No5 in the world rankings the following year, she has rarely looked capable of repeating her Paris triumph. She made the quarter-finals and semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2017 and 2018, but in the 13 other Grand Slam tournaments she has played since her win at Roland Garros she has failed to progress beyond the third round. She even dropped out of the world’s top 80 two years ago, though winning the title at Eastbourne this summer helped her climb back to her current position of No30.
At Roland Garros in 2017, Ostapenko had benefited from being an unknown quantity to many of her opponents, which was similar to Raducanu’s position in New York this month.
“When players don’t know you and you’re the underdog in every match, you have nothing to lose against the top players and that can help you to play really well,” Ostapenko said. “My opponents didn’t know me that well, because I was still new to the tour. But after I won in Paris, everyone knew me and they knew how I played. They knew how to prepare to play against me, so that was way harder for me.”
She added: “The situation turns around when you’re the Grand Slam champion. You’re the favourite and it’s your opponents who have nothing to lose against you. That’s the hardest part of it all.”
Ostapenko experienced once again this week how an unknown player can benefit from the advantage of surprise. Playing in Luxembourg, she was pushed hard in the second round by Dutchwoman Arianne Hartono before beating the world No300 in three sets.
“I was trying to find videos of her before our match, but I couldn’t find any that were good enough to watch, so I couldn’t find out how she plays,” Ostapenko said. “That was an advantage for her, because she knows how I play. She’s seen my matches. You can easily find my matches on YouTube.”
Still only 24, Ostapenko believes that she has more Grand slam titles in her. “I just have to work for it and get my consistency back,” she said. “And consistency comes with more matches.”
Ostapenko’s 2017 French Open victory was followed by a succession of Grand Slam triumphs by younger women, including Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin.
“Maybe I was the first one to inspire a lot of girls and they tried to emulate me,” Ostapenko said. “Maybe they saw what I did and started to believe in themselves that it was possible.”
As for Raducanu, Ostapenko believes that the Briton’s future will depend on how she deals with her new standing in the sport.
“Emma is still really young, so we’ll see how she handles all of that,” she said. “From what I saw of her at the US Open, she was handling everything really well, emotionally and in other aspects. She played some really good matches.
“I also played well when I won the French Open, but afterwards my whole life changed. You have completely different status and you need time to get used to it.”