Jelena Ostapenko arrived at the All England Club, most improbably, as the most recent major champion, yet few feel more ready to be in the driver’s seat than the 20-year-old Latvian.
Or, more specifically, the pilot’s cockpit.
“When I boarded, the crew came and asked me if you want to fly in the cockpit. I said, ‘Of course.’ The view was much, much better,” she told Wimbledon press of her Riga homecoming following her French Open victory.
“When I saw the red carpet out of the plane, I was a little bit nervous. I didn't really want to step out of the plane because was so many people waiting for me.
“But then I felt amazing. It felt so nice. So many people came to meet me. Many flowers, many posters. It was amazing.”
That early anecdote from Ostapenko’s pre-tournament press conference all but encapsulates her dramatic ascent. In the face of new pressures, seemingly overwhelming obstacles, she meets the moment with astounding poise, one that belies her age.
“Of course, there is more attention,” she notes with a matter-of-factness that has become her signature. “People expecting are more from me.
“I kind of achieved one of my goals, that I was working for. Now I have the title, so I'm just going to play, maybe to not think about anything, just play and enjoy every match.”
Rarely would such turns of phrase inspire confidence, particularly had they come from any other player in the midst of a career breakthrough. But Ostapenko isn’t any other player.
“Is she nervous or does she feel pressure? Timea Bacsinszky wondered ahead of their semifinal clash at Roland Garros. “Maybe she drinks pressure.”
The Swiss veteran found out first hand just how big Ostapenko’s gulp can be; her audacious shotmaking cares neither for stage nor scoreline.
“She's 20. Not afraid of anything. She doesn't measure maybe what she's doing right now. She probably doesn't care. The best example is match point.
“I mean, I serve very well wide. She's, like, hitting as hard as she can down the line from nowhere. It comes that much above the net and into the corner. I mean, who tries that? Seriously? I mean, it's like a one out of 10. But she does it.”
Ostapenko continued to do it in Eastbourne, outlasting Carla Suárez Navarro in a full circle moment for the Latvian, who flew past the Spaniard, then ranked No.9, in her Wimbledon debut back in 2015.
“I think my best memories from Wimbledon, are when I won the junior Wimbledon, and the next year I got the wildcard and won my first match against Carla. She was Top 10 that year.
“I feel very special here and I really like it.”
She’s starting to feel special everywhere she goes, at home and at work.
“They put my pictures everywhere [at my club in Latvia]. They brought some balloons saying ‘No.1.’ There was a big cake in the shape of a tennis racquet, and a lot of people. That felt amazing because that club is where I practice. I feel like home there.
“Players are nicer to me now. So many players have said, ‘Congrats.’ That was nice from them.”
Oh, and she made a little history too.
“I was the first person who won the Grand Slam in Latvia,” she grins, almost holding back a giggle. “Yeah, I don't know. I feel a little bit more confident. I’m really, really happy to have the Grand Slam title.”
Through all of the changes and newfound celebrity, the tennis court can perhaps provide some much-needed stasis for the confident new champion. With coach Anabel Medina Garrigues still by her side, Ostapenko plans the same style that helped take flight in France.
“I think if I play aggressive and I have my day, I think everything can happen. As I said, I play aggressive. I win most of the points by myself. I can control the match.”
Controlled aggression will be the name of the game at Wimbledon, where her brand of first-strike tennis should be rewarded even more than it was on the terre battue.
“[Anabel] told me that on grass mostly the player who is playing more aggressive or trying to play aggressive from the, like, first couple of shots is winning because it's grass and it's very hard to move. If you have a chance, you really have to play aggressive on this surface.
“I feel quite good on grass because it was my favorite surface so far. I'm looking forward to my first match here.”
Ostapenko will kick off her Wimbledon campaign against Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich.