Is Jelena Ostapenko the game’s biggest thrill-seeker? The Latvian talks openly about her love of riding roller coasters and sky-diving, with her mother – also Jelena – once having to talk her daughter out of leaping from Auckland’s 220-metre Sky Tower.
It was thrill-seeking of another kind that featured as the No.12 seed recovered from a 2-5 first set deficit to defeat Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-6(4), 6-0 and progress to a second straight quarter-final at Wimbledon.
Before the first competitive ball was even struck in the fourth round, it seemed clear that Ostapenko would provide the No.3 Court crowd with entertainment and astonishment in equal measure. Her first mis-hit came in the pre-match warm-up – prompting a giggling apology from the 20-year-old and an appreciative chortle from those assembling.
But things soon turned serious for the 2014 Wimbledon girls’ title holder and 2017 Roland-Garros champion.
The first game of the 78-minute match featured a bit of everything from Ostapenko: a stunning backhand winner, an unsuccessful challenge, a couple of errors, plus a double fault and even a foot fault. With a break surrendered in that opening service game, it highlighted you could expect anything from the Latvian.
Sasnovich, on the other hand, was simply sturdy. Where Ostapenko is expressive, hard-hitting and sometimes error-prone, the Belarusian is more a quiet achiever.
The conqueror of two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova played with impressive composure as she immediately capitalised on break points earned in Ostapenko’s opening two service games to gain a quick 3-0 advantage.
But Ostapenko is famously fearless, highlighted by her recovery from a set and a break down to achieve an unlikely victory at Roland-Garros in 2017 as a teenager. And while, for a time, it felt a if every winner for Ostapenko would be followed by an error, her go-for-everything style eventually paid dividends.
The most dramatic turning point came in the ninth game of the first set, when Ostapenko received a code violation for coaching. The Latvian was outraged but used the emotion positively, winning seven of the following nine points, in a run of five straight games, to force a first set tie-break.
With Ostapenko’s confidence growing, Sasnovich appeared to be unravelling. Four costly errors came in that tie-break, and one of five double faults gifted Ostapenko a set point that she promptly converted.
At last the thrill-seeking Ostapenko had turned the match definitively. Sasnovich couldn’t manage a game in the 27-minute second set – and while the Belarusian will eventually reflect on this Wimbledon as a positive one, the Latvian will look confidently ahead to a quarter-final meeting with Dominika Cibuklova.