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French Open

Ostap-who? Unseeded Latvian teen beats Wozniacki to reach first grand slam semi-final at French Open

The unseeded 19-year-old displays unbridled joy after beating former No 1 in three sets at the French Open

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 10:23am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 10:22am

Suddenly a grand slam semi-finalist for the first time, Jelena Ostapenko sounded a lot like the carefree teenager she’ll be for only a bit longer.

Ostapenko, an unseeded 19-year-old from Latvia, displayed unbridled joy after using the go-for-it strokes of someone too bold to know better to beat former number one Caroline Wozniacki 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 at the French Open on a rainy Tuesday.

She cracked jokes at her news conference, then giggled at her own words. As Ostapenko left the room, she turned to her agent and whispered with a wide, proud smile, “My answers are funny.” This is all so new to her – and she seemed as surprised as anyone to be where she is.

“I mean, of course, when I came here, I didn’t expect I’m going to be in the semis, but I was playing better and better every match,” the 47th-ranked Ostapenko said. “So I think if I keep it up, I think anything can happen.”

Those last three words might as well be printed on posters to commemorate the 2017 French Open. With Serena Williams (pregnant), Maria Sharapova (denied a wild card after a doping suspension) and Victoria Azarenka (about to come back after having a baby) all absent, number one Angelique Kerber upset in the first round, and defending champion Garbine Muguruza beaten in the fourth, this tournament became wide open.

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It is the first major since the 1979 Australian Open where no women’s quarter-finalist was a grand slam champion. The out-of-nowhere Ostapenko’s next opponent is 30th-seeded Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland, who eliminated 13th-seeded Kristina Mladenovic of France 6-4, 6-4.

Ostapenko and Bacsinszky, also a semi-finalist at Roland Garros two years ago, will meet Thursday. That just so happens to be Ostapenko’s 20th birthday and Bacsinszky’s 28th – which they each knew, because they were doubles partners at a tournament last season and have become pals. After Tuesday’s victories, they ran into each other in the players’ gym and hugged.

“Lucky her, she’s way younger than I am,” Bacsinszky said. “But maybe lucky me, experience-wise.”

Ostapenko has yet to win a tour-level title.

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Before last week, she had only once made it as far as the third round of any grand slam tournament.

A year ago, Ostapenko lost in the first round of the French Open.

The year before that, she lost in the first round of French Open qualifying.

She is the youngest French Open semi-finalist in a decade.

“Maybe,” Ostapenko said, “kind of (a) new generation.”

Against Wozniacki, a two-time US Open runner-up, Ostapenko sent shots toward the lines and put them right where she wanted often enough to deliver 38 winners – 32 more than her defensive-minded opponent.

“It looks like she hits it late a lot of the time, and you think she won’t be able to do cross-court or down the line in certain moments,” Wozniacki said, “and she does anyway.”

The first Latvian woman to reach a grand slam semi-final in the professional era, Ostapenko credits her strong footwork to a hobby, ballroom dancing (she prefers the samba).

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When Tuesday’s play began, the wind averaged 30km/h, with gusts up to 85km/h, making balls swerve oddly. Serve tosses were an adventure. Players wiped their eyes when dust kicked up from the clay court. There were two rain delays totaling more than 3 ½ hours – both scheduled men’s quarter-finals were postponed to Wednesday – and when matches resumed for good, the temperature dipped below 12 degrees Celsius.

“We had all the seasons rolled into one today,” Bacsinszky said. “We had a hurricane, a sandstorm, and we almost had snow, too.”

Bothered by the wind, Ostapenko trailed 5-0 at the start.

But she calibrated her strokes better as the air swirled less and it was clear Ostapenko was up to the task against the 11th-seeded Wozniacki, who is 26.

The matchup suited Ostapenko, the 2014 Wimbledon junior champion: she is 4-0 against Wozniacki.

So after being down 2-1 in the third set, Ostapenko grabbed the last five games, smiling and shouting and pumping her fist at the end.

While Ostapenko is on the rise, Bacsinszky is not long removed from nearly quitting the sport completely.

Four years ago, after foot and abdominal injuries, she took a hiatus from tennis to work at restaurants with an eye toward pursuing a degree in hotel management. In 2014, back on tour, she was ranked outside the top 100 and needed to qualify for the French Open.

Paris, though, brings out her best.

“It’s the tournament closest to my heart,” Bacsinszky said. “I love to play here.”