Paris – Jelena Ostapenko admitted Thursday that she was delighted her breakthrough 2017 Roland Garros triumph helped inspire Naomi Osaka to three Grand Slam crowns.
Ostapenko stunned the sport three years ago with her run to the title in Paris, claiming a first career crown by seeing off the likes of Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep in the final where she overturned a 6-4, 3-0 deficit.
Since then, Japan’s Osaka, just a year younger at 22, has become a global superstar by winning the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Opens and 2019 Australian Open.
Bianca Andreescu won the 2019 U.S. Open at just 19 while Sofia Kenin, 21, claimed the Melbourne title this year as the next generation of women’s tennis threatens to push the old guard to one side.
“It was tough to deal with all this pressure which was on me because obviously I was the first one from the year 1997 to win a Grand Slam but I felt the girls started to play better after that,” said Ostapenko, who stunned No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-2 to reach the third round of the French Open on Thursday.
“Especially Naomi, she’s such a good player. I think maybe 2017 inspired them, and they saw that it’s possible. So the young generation is coming.
“But also when I saw her winning, of course I also wanted to get back there on top and win another Grand Slam. So we kind of have all inspired each other which is also good.”
Ostapenko had only just turned 20 and was 47th in the world when she won in Paris three years ago, although it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.
The Latvian’s title defense ended in the first round in 2018 at the hands of Kateryna Kozlova while Victoria Azarenka dished out another opening-round loss in 2019.
Ostapenko made the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2018 but has yet to get past the third round at either the Australian or US Open.
“It’s hard to compare to 2017 because that was three years ago and I was fearless, nobody really knew me,” added Ostapenko, now ranked 43rd.
“But now they know how I play and know how to play against me.”
Ostapenko fired 27 winners past Pliskova and she believes the slower conditions of a tournament being played in the autumn, rather than its traditional May-June slot, play right into her comfort zone.
Her game now also incorporates more drop shots rather than her once trademark all-or-nothing, not-so-guided missiles fired down either flank.
“Girls are expecting me always to hit the ball so strong, and especially here on clay, so it’s useful because the bounces are much lower because it’s much colder this year.
“I think the drop shot is very useful. Even if I can’t hit winners, sometimes I mix it up and the girls don’t expect it.”
Next up for Ostapenko is either Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open winner and runner-up in Paris in 2018, or Spain’s Paula Badosa for a spot in the last 16.
For Pliskova, it’s the end of another fruitless trip to the French capital.
The 28-year-old Czech made the semi-finals in 2017 but has now failed to get beyond the third round in her eight other appearances.
In 2020, she made the third round at the Australian Open and only second at the U.S. Open but she arrived in Paris having retired from the Italian Open final against Halep with a thigh injury.
“I think maybe the year is finished,” said Pliskova.
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