JURMALA, Latvia - The last three years has seen Latvia - a country home to just under two million people - rocket onto the radar as a growing tennis power, making it a prime destination for a WTA tournament.
Hometown heroes Jelena Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova were both on hand to ring in the inaugural Baltic Open, held in the aptly named seaside city of Jurmala.
"It was a great achievement for us and it was very important to have them here," explained tournament director Alexander Ostrovsky. "They’re very popular here, national stars, I would say."
Ostapenko became the first from her country to capture a Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 French Open, while the veteran Sevastova - top seed in Jurmala - enjoyed a major breakthrough of her own last summer at the US Open, capping a career renaissance by reaching the semifinals.
As Sevastova battled past Dalila Jakupovic on Wednesday night, Ostrovsky explained his vision for the tournament in between cheers from an enthusiastic Centre Court crowd.
"Initially, my idea was to host an event like a tennis festival. Jurmala fits this idea very well. It’s a very picturesque place, close to the sea, with a lot of trees. It’s very nice, and a lot of people are walking around, coming to watch good, professional tennis. This location was right, and I hope the spectators are enjoying the event."
Tournament director of the Moscow River Cup last summer - where Olga Danilovic and Anastasia Potapova contested the first WTA final comprised only of athletes born in the new millennium - Ostrovsky, in addition to running an eponymous tennis academy in Russia, aims to bring a similarly youthful energy to Jurmala.
"I want an event that features everything to do with tennis: entertainers who can perform trick shots, food markets for fans, a players party on the beach. It’s not just about on-court activities, but off-court, as well.
"The experience from the first year is always good, so there was a lot of things we learned from the first year that we implemented here. The tournament is even better from an organizational standpoint. For me, I’m responsible for everything, but I have a great team, and we couldn’t do it without them. Overall, I think the players are really enjoying it. We’ve had very good weather; the forecast is good and I hope to see no rain through the end of the tournament.
"Most importantly, we have a good atmosphere."
Though Ostapenko fell in the first round to tricky American Bernarda Pera, she remains in the tournament as the top seed in doubles alongside Kazakh Galina Voskoboeva. Sevastova plays her quarterfinal against rising Romanian Irina Bara on Friday, and with two Latvians still in the hunt for titles, Jurmala is in pole position for what has already proven an intruging debut on the WTA calendar.
"Before the tournament, preparing for the event, I slept maybe two or three hours per day. That wasn’t just me, but everyone on our team, but we enjoyed it, and it was really interesting to prepare the event.
"We hope to make it an important part of sporting life in Jurmala, and maybe not just in Jurmala, but Latvia and Europe as well. It’s a real challenge, but a very interesting job."