In 1876, Maria Spelterini walked across the Niagara River gorge on a tightrope and during one crossing reportedly had a paper bag over her head. In a manner of speaking one might say it is a similarly audacious spirit that Jelena Ostapenko brings to the tennis court.
Fear is not her problem. Daring is not her issue. Last night she won only seven games against Garbine Muguruza while losing 3-6, 4-6, was broken five times and still hit 12 more winners than the Spaniard.
According to the SAP Tennis Analytics, Muguruza had seven winners but Ostapenko had 19. Just to demonstrate her versatility, 10 were forehand winners and nine were from her backhand. Oh yes, there was also the minor matter of 37 unforced errors.
It is not advisable to support the Latvian if you suffer from high blood pressure. The MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo once told me "I can't ride slowly" and Ostapenko evidently cannot play safely. If there is indeed such a thing as the "adventure gene" then she has it. There's not a drilled forehand she won't try or a sharp backhand angle she won't explore.
In her very first service game, among other things, she hit an ace; two huge forehands in one point; a double fault; a backhand down-the-line winner; a big backhand way out; a netted forehand; some blistering forehands; and a backhand long.
On it went. Gasp from crowd. Groan from crowd. At 1.77m, Ostapenko is a middleweight boxer with a heavyweight punch. One moment brilliant returns from her shrieked across the court and landed deep, the next over-ambitious shots collided with the net. Once Muguruza wasn't even too far from the ball when it went whistling cross-court past her like a shell.
In Beijing earlier this month, Ostapenko's former coach Anabel Medina Garrigues praised the Latvian's timing and told me that "if she improves a couple of things on both sides she can hit even harder". God forbid.
It will be stated that Ostapenko needs patience, and should play the percentages, whereupon she will produce a statistics sheet from Roland Garros which says 299 winners hit in seven matches and a trophy from Paris with her name engraved on it. You want to tell her that her tactics are terrible?
People chase thrills, Ostapenko offers them. Consistency has its beauty but we also want athletes who flirt with risk, who take Formula One corners too fast and suddenly break away from the pack in a 5,000m distance race. You need golfers who lay up, but also Phil Mickelson who has never seen a distant water hazard he doesn't want to cross. In risk lies a mad courage.
People chase thrills, Ostapenko offers them. Consistency has its beauty but we also want athletes who flirt with risk, who take Formula One corners too fast and suddenly break away from the pack in a 5,000m distance race.
Ostapenko plays tennis according to rules designed by her. First, the lines of a tennis court do not mark the boundaries of the playing area, they represent a target. So just push to the limit. Second, this bide-your-time-before-you-strike stuff is over-rated. So just attack from the second shot. How can you not like such a player?
The Latvian is a timing player, a feel athlete, and last night she said she "couldn't get used to the court" and the bounce which led to her unforced errors. Her intensity and displeasure was evident in her body language as she gestured to her coach, twice summoned him on court and occasionally could not quite believe that the net had dared to interrupt her genius.
She is a fascinating, amusing, unpredictable, headstrong talent, who is only 20, has a Grand Slam title and is just getting used to an altered, high-pressure life. Last night, even in defeat, she seemed to charm the crowd with her style, except perhaps in the end when she slid her racket across the court towards her chair. It was, one might say, her only ungallant stroke of the night.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Even in defeat, Ostapenko is a fearless, fascinating figure'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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