CHARLESTON, SC, USA - No.10 seed Jelena Ostapenko made a winning start to her clay court season at the Volvo Car Open - but the match wasn’t without its twists and turns.
Playing against Charleston native Shelby Rogers - whose emotional return from injury at her home tournament won many hearts - at a rocking Volvo Car Stadium, Ostapenko had to navigate a complicated comeback as her opponent soared ahead.
Down a set, Ostapenko rallied and claimed the second. But she faced an even bigger deficit in the third, down 5-1 and facing match points - but she pulled off the escape act to clinch the win in a tiebreaker.
“I always knew like first of all first set I didn’t play that well, and she was playing really well,” Ostapenko told press after the two-and-a-half hour victory. “She was hitting strong. And then I kind of got used to the game.
“I think the key game was the first one in the third set, which I had the opportunities to win and I missed one shot down the line, and everything kind of went her way. And then I was just happy that I fought and could find my game.”
Despite the effusive Charleston crowd backing their local star, Ostapenko turned around the deficit, saved a match point and emerged victorious, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(4).
In many ways, the match was kind of a microcosm of her season so far: the former French Open champion has suffered four opening-round losses, but she’s also won six matches - half of them dramatic three-setters where she’s needed time to get her booming game off of the ground.
She admitted earlier in the year to having started out the season not feeling her best after a left wrist injury interrupted her pre-season preparations.
“Before with this injury it took me so long, so I couldn’t really do the proper preseason,” she explained. “So I’m trying now to compensate it and, yeah, just trying to get back in form. And I just love to play on clay.
“I’m much better now, but still I have of course more confidence than before, but I feel like I can still be much better player than I am now.”
Charleston could prove to be the perfect venue for Ostapenko to finally get her season off of the ground as the clay swing kicks into gear and careens toward Roland Garros, the prize at the end of this stretch.
Last year, Ostapenko fell in the first round of her title French Open title defense, and in Charleston she admitted that she’s struggled to regain the fearless, all-out tennis that led her to claim her maiden Grand Slam title.
“Once you start to think too much, it's very hard to get rid of it, and it's hard to get that feeling, like fearless feeling again,” she said. “Because I'm in a different position right now, like ranking-wise and also a Grand Slam champion.”
The Latvian found a bit of that in her battle against Rogers: after trailing 1-5, she faced a match point at 3-5 as Rogers pushed to break the Ostapenko serve. With her back against the wall, Ostapenko settled into her lights-out style of tennis and, for half a set, looked absolutely fearless.
“Sometimes when you go to the match, if you are the favorite of the match and you have this in your mind that you kind of cannot lose the match, but you understand that the other player is playing good as well, and it makes you feel more pressure - you want to try to play much better,” Ostapenko explained. “But you play worse because you have this thinking that you have to win. But now I'm just trying to go on the court without thinking that I have to win. Just try to enjoy it.
“I think the most important is to be just fearless like I was [in Roland Garros]. I was just not trying to miss the ball and I was just going for it. And I didn’t think too much, because after everything changed so much, and I’m thinking much more like during the points. Also I’m trying to get rid of it and just try to be fearless and play again the way I played there.”
Ostapenko is trying to keep things simple off of the court as well. She’s parted ways with coach Glenn Schnaap, who previously worked with the likes of Dinara Safina, Nadia Petrova and Jelena Dokic and is now solely coached by her mother, Jelena Jakovleva, for the foreseeable future.
She has no plans to look for another coach to join her team, explaining that, after all, her mom has been there for her since day one... literally.
“I'm honestly fine with the way it is now,” Ostapenko said. “I think my mom knows me the best, and she wants everything, like all the best to me.”
“And she knows me since I was born,” she added, laughing. “I think she's the one who can help me the most, because I have to feel comfortable with the person I'm working, and with her I do feel comfortable.”
Ostapenko takes on No.8 seed Madison Keys in the third round of the Volvo Car Open on Thursday.