What's your game plan?
Last summer saw a fresh talent shoot to the top of the tennis rankings when an unseeded 20-year-old sealed a victory in the women’s singles final at the French Open. The first Latvian ever to win the title, Jelena Ostapenko kicks off 2018 as Grand Slam Champion.
Her passport might say Jeļena, but she (and her fanbase) prefers the name Aļona. Either way, her surprise run last year has made Ostapenko a household name among the tennis elite. Now all eyes are on the young and gifted player in the first big tournament of the year, the Australian Open.
The fearless hitter is known for her high-risk, high-reward play and the tendency to use the entire court. Outside of tennis, Alona balances her passionate personality with a more collaborative and coordinated practice of ballroom dancing.
Not one to fear her sudden fame, Alona takes on fresh challenges as world number 7.
This is Jelena Ostapenko's game plan.
You have a Grand Slam title in the bag, but this is only the beginning. Who do you turn to for mentorship and inspiration?
There are people, more senior players, who help me and give me valuable tips along the way. It’s always inspiring to talk to legends of the game, learn from their experience, and use their advice to improve my game.
Growing up, Serena Williams (36) was my idol. I think I was influenced by her bold play a lot, because it’s actually a bit similar to my own – we both play very aggressive tennis. Serena is still someone I look up to.
On playing style, you’re known for your aggressive, high-risk game. Where does that fire come from?
Since I first started playing tennis, I never held back. I’ve always taken the chance to hit hard. Also, I’ve always been quite emotional. On the court, all the emotions come together and result in powerful play. That’s my strategy: to be fearless, aggressive, and to win points by relying on my own strength.
Are you like that off the court as well?
Actually, no [laughs]. I leave that side of me behind when the game is over, so I’m calmer in private. Not the total opposite, but quite different to what you might witness on the court. Of course, I’m active and energetic as a person, but all in all pretty level-headed.
Do you see any downsides with your high-risk approach when facing an opponent?
Well, sometimes it can backfire and of course you have days when you don’t really feel your game. Still, I stick to my strengths and give it my all and might manage to win in the end.
In general, there are more advantages than disadvantages in being willing to take risks and play aggressively, because the game is a great teacher – you can learn a lot by going all in and testing your limits, and seeing where that takes you.
You also have a background in ballroom dancing. Have you taken any particular moves from the dance floor to the tennis court?
I did ballroom dancing in my childhood for seven years at a professional level, competing in Latvian Championships. At 12 years old, I had to choose between tennis and dancing. I chose the former because it simply appealed to me more, but also because with tennis I alone am in charge. Ballroom dancing depends on who your partner is; you’re always practicing and competing as a duo. I still dance as a hobby and love it.
As for the skills, it’s all about footwork. On the dance floor, you need excellent coordination because you have all these small steps and combinations to master. This is definitely an advantage in tennis, too, in utilizing the entire court and knowing your way around it.
You start 2018 as a Grand Slam winner. Ahead of the Australian Open, what's going through your mind?
I’ll try to come back stronger than ever. It’s a new year, with fresh challenges, and new tournaments I’ve been training for.
Looking years ahead, my goal is to win more Grand Slams. Ideally, it would be great to achieve them all and eventually become World Number One. That’s the dream.