SEOUL, South Korea - No.1 seed and defending champion Jelena Ostapenko got her 2018 campaign at the KEB Hana Bank Korea Open off to a positive start with a 6-3, 6-3 defeat of Lara Arruabarrena in one hour and 14 minutes, coming up with an array of spectacular winners and breaking her opponent five times in total.
"She's a very good player and very consistent," Ostapenko remarked afterwards. "Today was a good match for me, especially for the first round because first rounds are always tough."
The Latvian also opened up about the growing popularity of tennis in her home country following her shock Roland Garros title last year, with reporters drawing parallels with Hyeon Chung's impact in Korea.
"It's really nice to see that so many kids are coming to tennis clubs for practice - now almost all tennis clubs are full of kids, I see this change when people are more into tennis and I think that's really great for tennis in Latvia," said Ostapenko, who is eagerly anticipating next year's Fed Cup campaign alongside Anastasija Sevastova - which will kick off with a home tie against Slovakia in February.
"Next year we are finally playing Fed Cup at home, which is great because I haven't played at home since I was 12 or 13," she said. "It will be a great opportunity for me and Anastasija to play in front of our crowd, I'm really excited and looking forward to it."
— WTA (@WTA) September 19, 2018
Ostapenko's first attempt at a title defence in her young career, at Roland Garros in May, had been unceremoniously ended 7-5, 6-3 in the first round by Kateryna Kozlova, and afterwards she had spoken about the "unbelievable pressure" she had felt. Her second try here in Seoul is already more successful, with the first hurdle - over the 2016 champion and a player who had taken Ostapenko to three sets in their only previous meeting - cleared in typically up-and-down fashion.
In a match of extreme stylistic contrasts, the 21-year-old's ultra-aggressive hitting would be tested by Arruabarrena's consistency and movement. As ever, Ostapenko's style was a tightrope walk, and every time she stepped up to the line there would be a degree of uncertainty as to whether she would soar or fall.
Each of her blazing winners was accompanied by whoops from a crowd that had delighted in her title run last year, and Ostapenko was appreciative of the love afterwards. "I was really happy that so many people came," she said. "Especially here in Korea, I have great memories from last year - the fans support me a lot so I felt really good out there today."
Not that she needed any encouragement to go for high-risk shotmaking. Often, it would pay off. Four clean winners, including two on return, made for a spectacular service break for 3-1; serving for the first set, the World No.10 dismissed Arruabarrena's attempt to mix play up with slice by swatting a backhand down the line, before reaching set point with a drive volley on the line.
Afterwards, Ostapenko discussed how she had always had the ability to hit the ball hard since she was a child - and that she would recommend the strategy to any junior. "If you have a chance, be aggressive," she instructed. "When you win points by yourself it always brings you good results - but you also have to be very consistent, you don't have to go crazy for every shot!"
Although the strategy would also have its pitfalls - unforced errors would make life a little harder than it needed to be for Ostapenko - ultimately the former World No.5 would emerge with a positive ratio from the baseline, notching up 32 winners to 29 unforced errors over the course of the day.
The Spaniard, by contrast, played a watertight match with just eight unforced errors - perhaps too much so, as she paid the price for too often remaining passive at times when Ostapenko's inconsistency might have allowed her to press home her advantage. A mere three winners allowed Ostapenko to tee off on her own shots in relative comfort.
— WTA (@WTA) September 19, 2018
If the Wimbledon semifinalist had an Achilles heel, it would be her wayward serve - and eight double faults that would often come in inopportune bunches. Two came in the fifth game of the first set; another three hoved into view to fall behind 0-2 in the second set.
But throughout the match, Ostapenko demonstrated that she was able to focus enough to get out of these self-inflicted holes. In the second set, a point to go down 0-3 was saved with a pinpoint forehand return winner, and from there the defending champion resumed control, roaring through six of the final seven games of the match to set up a second-round tie against Ekaterina Alexandrova.