It wasn’t a hard decision for renowned n coach David Taylor. French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and her team were weighing him up as a potential new mentor in the aftermath of her best season yet.
Boasting a free-swinging game – Ostapenko fired more than 50 winners past Simona Halep in her come-from-behind Paris triumph – the 20-year-old is one of the emerging stars on the WTA Tour. With Serena Williams pregnant and sidelined for most of 2017, the Latvian was one of two women to glimpse their moment and claim their first slam. Sloane Stephens, also unseeded for her US Open triumph, completed an unexpected female quartet of major winners last year, alongside Williams and Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza.
Europe-based Taylor already knew about Ostapenko’s much-remarked-upon mental strengths, but there were other elements to her game that enticed him. She’s one to hit for the lines and doesn’t flinch on the big points.
“I think her main strengths are obviously, and everyone talks about her mental fortitude, being able to play her best tennis in the biggest moments,” Taylor says.
“I think that’s an incredible skill … I’m not sure you can teach that.
“You can obviously make players aware, but she just has that innate skill to really see the opportunity and go for it.”
The memories of her glorious days at Roland Garros bring a smile to Ostapenko’s face.
It was a win from the clouds – the Latvian was the first unseeded women’s grand slam champion since US Open wildcard Kim Clijsters in 2009 and the first unseeded woman to triumph at Roland Garros since 1933.
“The first couple of matches were really tough,” Ostapenko says upon her arrival in Melbourne for the n Open, a tournament where she carries the world No.7 ranking and growing expectations about her chances.
“A lot of three-set matches but I was holding it pretty good and playing well. Just every match better and better.”
The Ostapenko-Taylor partnership began after the Latvian parted ways with Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues. Taylor knows the women’s game inside out and is a former mentor of Samantha Stosur, Alicia Molik, Martina Hingis, Ana Ivanovic and Japanese prodigy Naomi Osaka.
“I just got a call,” Taylor says of the approach from Ostapenko’s camp.
“I finished coaching with Naomi Osaka at the end of the year. A couple of days later, yeah, I just got a call from her agent. I went for a trial. It turned into a longer one and then I got the job.
“We did it in the pre-season in Riga, in her home town in Latvia. I hadn’t been to Latvia but it’s only a couple of hours from where I live in Liechtenstein.
“It’s actually really good for me. I’d like to coach someone living in Europe. Things just clicked and here we are.”
Ostapenko, also known as as A??ona Ostapenko – a first name she prefers – was introduced to the sport at age five by mother Jelena Jakovleva. Her mother remains active in her coaching team.
“I think she had a really good background of coaching from her mother for many, many years,” Taylor says.
“Her mother will always be involved in her tennis, at a really high level. And she continues to do so. So I’m working with her. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for her. I really enjoy being in the team.”
For a player who is firmly marked in the “one to watch” column, Ostapenko’s Roland Garros heroics generated plenty of hype in Latvia. She jetted home to Riga in A-list style.
“I mean, I’m quite big in Latvia because we don’t have that many good athletes, but we still have some great ones like Kristaps Porzingis in the NBA,” Ostapenko says.
“When I came back home from Paris there was like red carpet from the plane.
“That was very big. Around 300 fans came to the airport and they were like meeting me with signs ‘You’re the best’ so that was very impressive.”
Understandably, for a player whose first tour-level title came on Paris’ famous red clay, it took some time to sink in.
“When I won it [I only] realised a couple of weeks later that I’d won the grand slam [tournament]. It was a good time at home.”
Such have been the expectations around Ostapenko – she also won the WTA most improved player award for 2017 – that she was chosen as the opponent for Serena Williams at the American’s comeback match in Abu Dhabi in late December.
For Ostapenko, it was a great opportunity to play against her biggest childhood idol. She managed to come away with a win, too, with Williams later deciding she wasn’t quite ready for a fully-fledged return to tennis after the birth of her daughter in September.
“It was a great opportunity and especially her first match after since she was coming back,” Ostapenko says.
“I really enjoyed it a lot. I mean especially playing someone who was your idol growing up, and now playing against you.”
The French Open breakthrough, aside, Taylor still did his due diligence on his new project. He took particular notice that good results followed her breakout in Paris – most notably Ostapenko also reached the final eight at Wimbledon, losing to Venus Williams.
“I took the French Open out of her rankings and she was still a top 10 player without that,” Taylor says.
“I think that’s very significant because a lot of players, definitely in recent times, have struggled post grand slam success.
“I really think she can be so much better than what she is at the moment.”
Ostapenko is not paying too much attention to an opening round loss at the Sydney International, a match played in stifling heat as she lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the first round.
“Just one match at a time, you can’t look forward. You just have to take one match at a time and play as good as you can,” she says.
“Of course every grand slam will be tough because now players get ready to play against me. But I have to prepare very well for every match and try to show my best.”