By John Stonestreet
LONDON (Reuters) – ‘Can she do it again on grass?’ is a question fans and pundits are asking after 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko upset the established tennis order by winning the French Open last month.
But as the hard-hitting Latvian limbers up for Wimbledon, her near contemporary from Russia, Daria Kasatkina, is staking her own claim to carry the standard for the sport’s next generation.
Both women had a brush with Simona Halep in Paris, Ostapenko beating the third-seeded Romanian in an unforgettable final while Kasatkina lost in a third-round match that, until nerves apparently intervened, she looked poised to take to a third set.
Born within a month of each other in mid-1997, they also have decent track records at the All England Club.
Kasatkina, whose game relies more on placement and changes of pace than raw power, reached the last 32 in 2016, where she was edged out in three tight sets by eventual semi-finalist Venus Williams.
Ostapenko, who says Wimbledon is her favorite tournament, won the junior title in 2014.
For American Tracy Austin, in the vanguard of the teenage revolution that helped popularize the women’s game in the 1980s, the Latvian’s emergence as a genuine star from among a host of young hopefuls will have come as no surprise.
“So many young kids are used to winning in the juniors and then they come in and they take the hits from the pros. How do they make that transition when they’re losing a little bit more?” Austin told Reuters in the run-up to Roland Garros.
“To me, Ostapenko and Kasatkina have very high ceilings and I think it’s exciting for women’s tennis.”
In retaining confidence in her clumping groundstrokes to overpower older and more experienced opponents, the Latvian has leapt across the gap separating the junior from the senior game.
But Austin, who won the first of her two U.S. Opens as a 16-year-old in 1979, identified the same blend of talent and determination she views as a prerequisite for success in the Russian.
Kasatkina won her maiden main tour singles title at the Charleston Open in April, and Austin – working as an analyst for U.S. network Tennis Channel – was there to see every shot.
“Every match had some different element that (Kasatkina) had to deal with… Every match she had to problem-solve,” the American said.
“Sometimes she was aggressive sometimes she realized it was more beneficial to go back to defense. Sometimes she hit hard, sometimes she chipped and drop-shotted or hit loppy balls.”
That thoughtful approach was good enough to win the final 6-3 6-1. The Russian’s opponent on that day was Ostapenko – though it seems fair to say the Latvian has come a long way since.
(Reporting by John Stonestreet; Editing by Ken Ferris)