WIMBLEDON — Jelena Ostapenko arrives at Wimbledon on the crest of two distinct celebrity endorsements. Last week, she received an Instagram shoutout from rapper Lil’ Wayne (after she declared her preference for him over Drake on The Tennis Channel). He was followed by actor Steve Carell, who informed Laura Robson during a tour of the Wimbledon grounds Ostapenko was a household favorite.

“Maybe when I’m very emotional on court, they feel like I’m acting in a movie,” Ostapenko said ahead of the tournament. “It’s probably entertaining to watch me play.”

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You can scrub the “probably.” Ostapenko is one of the Hologic WTA Tour’s great personalities, and her celebrity following is simply a broadening of her existing appeal to tennis fans. Her matches are must-sees, predictable only in the unpredictability of their rollercoaster score lines and whiplash streaks of form. At last year’s US Open, Ostapenko notched her fourth win in as many meetings with World No.1 Iga Swiatek; nine weeks later, she lost to No.569-ranked wild card Back Dayeon in Seoul.

Her dramatic reactions have become go-to memes. Her fiery temper has been felt by umpires, opponents and her own team. Never mind the drunk fans who dare to heckle her and the unflinching electronic line-calling system. Her first-round opponent Tuesday at Wimbledon is Ajla Tomljanovic, with whom she famously quarreled in the 2021 third round. The beef has long been squashed though, and the pair had only kind words to say about each other when they played at the Australian Open in January.

The essence of Ostapenko’s appeal is pure camp — the embrace of everything theatrical and over-the-top, particularly among the LGBT community which has long been loyal to women’s tennis. In 1964, the writer Susan Sontag defined “camp” as the celebration of “a person being one, very intense thing” — and that’s Ostapenko in a nutshell.

Super-fan Jonah Soble agrees. “I’m a fan of her attitude, her confidence and her power on court,” he told wtatennis.com. “She’s unique and doesn’t care about what other people think.”

When Ostapenko began designing her own outfits in collaboration with Latvian brand DK One, she declared her priorities were “bright colors” and “not to be like everyone else.” The results were a triumph on both counts. Amid a sea of big-brand uniforms, Ostapenko gifted fans with black-and-purple houndstooth patterns, turquoise and leopard print-color schemes and an abundance of ruffles, collars and other fripperies.

At all times, Ostapenko seems to be doing the most Ostapenko thing imaginable. Not in a cynical, brand-building way, but because it’s simply the mode of being that comes most spontaneously to her.

“I feel like some people and some big celebrities, not just athletes, they’re afraid to show their personality and who they really are,” she said. “They behave a certain way, and sometimes it feels like a lot of them behave the same way. It’s boring.”

To Ostapenko, being herself is also a life philosophy — one she learned from one of the game’s greats.

“For me, a good example is Serena,” she said. “Such a big personality and she didn’t care about what anyone was thinking about her. She was just herself. I think it helps her not only on the tennis court, but to achieve so many things in life.”

As an example, Ostapenko brings up an anecdote from her childhood.

“When I was 5 years old, I was in a group of kids practicing with my mum,” she said. “When we were running exercises to the net and back, I always wanted to be the first one. Every time our team lost, I told my mum we had to re-run it until I won. Only then I was happy.”

It must be stressed, too, how Ostapenko’s own “big personality” goes against so many norms in tennis. Her playing style takes the concept of aggressive tennis and dials it up to the max. Earlier this year, tennis blogger and statistician Jeff Sackmann measured players via an “aggression score” metric, whereby their numbers would theoretically fall between 0 (most passive) and 100 (most aggressive). Ostapenko’s career score was 175.

Back in 2017, after Ostapenko defeated Timea Bacsinszky in the Roland Garros semifinals en route to the title, the Swiss said afterward:

“She’s 20. Not afraid of anything. She probably doesn’t care. She’s hitting as hard as she can down the line from nowhere. It comes that above the net and in the corner, and I mean, who tries that? Seriously? I mean, it’s one out of 10. But she does it. So we’ll see if she does it at 28 years old.”

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Ostapenko has just turned 27, and is very much still doing it. In Rome this year, she tallied an absurd 69 winners to 72 unforced errors against Sara Sorribes Tormo. And she regrets nothing; if you ask her what she would do differently in any given match, the answer is invariably that she should have been even more aggressive. When asked whether she would prefer to win a match while hitting no winners, or lose a match despite hitting 100 winners, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Hitting 100 winners and lose the match!” she said. “That’s the key to your success. Obviously some players don’t have the ability to hit the ball as I can, but you have to be yourself and take risks.”

Back in Rome, Ostapenko said: “Sometimes you can get nuts being too serious.” For her, being herself is also about having fun. It’s a way to stay sane while going through the tour’s wearying grind of endless travel. However, beneath her playful exterior, there are aspects that Ostapenko takes seriously.

For starters, there’s the work she’s put into improving her game. Back in 2019, she was plagued by double faults, once tallying 25 in a match against Karolina Pliskova (which she still won). Those days are long gone, with the serve frequently a key weapon. True to form, though, Ostapenko now declares that her serve is “really good in practice,” and any issues are merely “mental.”

Jelena Ostapenko with fan Jonah Soble after defeating Iga Swiatek at the 2023 US Open.

Jonah Soble

But perhaps what Ostapenko takes most seriously is loyalty to those who love her. At last year’s US Open, Soble — who had been sending her messages of support for several months — found that he would be unable to see her fourth-round match against Swiatek on Arthur Ashe with his grounds pass. So he messaged her again to see if she had a spare. A few hours later, Ostapenko responded.

“Next thing I know I’m cheering her on with a mini cheering section and she won the match incredulously,” he said.

When asked about her fans, Ostapenko replies passionately and at length.

“It’s very important to share these moments with your fans,” she said. “Your real fans are supporting you in good and bad days — that’s why you call them fans. People who are only supporting you in good days, I don’t think these people are really fans. Everyone is supporting you when you have a good day.

“The true fans are the ones who are texting you after you’ve had a loss, they are trying to understand you, and they never push you or say anything bad. And some of them are traveling to tournaments, so I think it’s important to have some contact with them, because they are helping a lot. I feel like they deserve it.”

Just as Ostapenko deserves recognition for turning unpredictability into her winning formula.

Source: https://www.wtatennis.com/news/4048377/the-ostapenko-impact-fearless-authentic-and-game-altering

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