“Out of nowhere”: that’s the cliché-filled cloud that followed unseeded Jelena Ostapenko for most of the French Open.
But if you had been paying close attention to the hard-hitting Latvian’s rise over the past few years, and particularly this season, she has not come from “out of nowhere” at all. In fact, the 2014 junior Wimbledon champion’s rise has been a long time coming.
Consider her Grand Slam main-draw debut, at Wimbledon in 2015. As a wild-card entrant, Ostapenko annihilated ninth-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-2, 6-0, in the first round. Weeks later, at her first U.S. Open, Ostapenko made her way into the main draw through qualifying, capped by a win over 2014 tournament darling CiCi Bellis in two straightforward sets. She thought nothing of the occasion, ignoring the American crowd and all of the hoopla and instead focusing only on herself and her powerful baseline strokes.
That week, she said the words that have turned into a motto—and a better tagline than the one that trailed her in Roland Garros: “If I play my best tennis I can win. You just have to play, you don’t have to expect anything.”
Ostapenko went on to reach the second round at Flushing Meadows, taking the first set off of No. 16-seeded Sara Errani 6-0 before eventually falling. The run wasn’t enough to garner global attention, but it was enough to propel Ostapenko’s career. She would reach her first career final just weeks later in Quebec City, which put her inside the Top 100 for the first time.
Ostapenko reached her second final the following season at a higher-profile event in Doha, upsetting both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Petra Kvitova en route. The teenager’s momentum would cool by year’s end, but she turned yet another corner at the start of 2017. After reaching the semifinals in Auckland, Ostapenko advanced to the third round of a major for the first time, at the Australian Open. She led fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova 5-2 in the third set before falling 10-8.
Had Ostapenko won that final game, no one would have referred to her as “out of nowhere” in Paris. I hope.
Once the tour turned to clay, Ostapenko caught fire by reaching the Charleston final and the Prague semifinals. Including qualifying matches, her clay record was 14-4 going into Paris. There she was given a gift from the tennis gods: landing in Angelique Kerber’s quarter.
Being placed in the same section as the top seed is a usually a kiss of death in tennis, but not when it comes to Kerber, who has struggled mightily at the top. The German would lose her opener to Ekaterina Makarova, while Ostapenko would storm into the fourth round with the loss of just one set.
In the round of 16, she outlasted Samantha Stosur in three sets, then did the same against Caroline Wozniacki. Ostapenko has now beaten Wozniacki all four times they’ve played, and three times this year—all on clay. She couldn’t have asked for a better quarterfinal opponent.
Dropping the first set on four separate occasions—including in the final against Simona Halep—didn’t faze Ostapenko. Instead, she dug in and swung harder. Ostapenko also carries a single-minded belief in her aggressive game style, the one that her mother helped build from day one, long before the 2017 French Open. Once she got there, it drove her to make history as the first Latvian to win a Grand Slam singles title and the first unseeded singles player in the Open era to win Roland Garros.
All tournament long, all Ostapenko kept saying is she wanted to enjoy the experience, play her best and be aggressive. It helps that she’s just a few days removed from her teenage years. If there’s one thing that she’ll want to do moving forward, it’s to continue being blissfully unaware of the pressure and expectations.
But nothing will ever be the same for the entertaining Ostapenko, who hopefully can find a way to bottle this magic for years to come. No matter what happens, though, she can never be referred to as “out of nowhere” again.