Ostapenko playing with heavy heart

  • Matt Trollope

Jelena Ostapenko did not even know if she would play the Australian Open after personal tragedy struck early in January.

The Latvian star, the French Open champion in 2017 and a former world No.5, posted on Instagram 10 days ago the news her father, Jevgenijs, had passed away, just as she was preparing to contest her first tournament of the season in Auckland.

Ostapenko withdrew from that event, flew home to Latvia, and then boarded another plane to Australia, flying for around 50 hours in the space of four days.

"I decided to play (the Australian Open) because I will be busy with something,” she told ausopen.com. “If I stay home I think it's gonna push me even more, and will be even harder for me.”

Ostapenko somehow managed to remain focused enough to post a 6-1 6-4 win over Ludmilla Samsonova at Melbourne Park, sending her through to the second round on Thursday, where she will meet sixth seed Belinda Bencic.

"I was just trying to be in the present moment, to not think about anything else,” she said of her first-round victory.

“Just, I'm on the court, I'm playing a match, and that's it. In general, I think I played very well and I was just in the present moment. I was just only on court and trying to be there as much as possible.”

Tennis is a way for Ostapenko to temporarily numb the pain of her father's passing

Shockingly, Ostapenko was not the only young star in the AO2020 main draw carrying the grief of recently losing her father.

Just over a month earlier, No.11 seed Aryna Sabalenka’s father passed away, while 21st seed Amanda Anisimova withdrew from the US Open after her father died in August.

Both Sabalenka and Anisimova said they were now playing for more than themselves.

Sabalenka, in Adelaide last week where she reached the semifinals, told reporters she was trying to fight because her father had wanted her to become No.1. "I’m doing it for him so that’s what is helping me to be strong right now,” she said.

Anisimova, who advanced to the Auckland semifinals two weeks ago, told the New York Post on the eve of the Australian Open that she had been happy to return to playing tennis after the tragedy. “I know that’s what my dad would want me to be doing,” she said. “That’s what would make him proud.”

Both Sabalenka and Anisimova lost in the first round at Melbourne Park.

Ostapenko was very aware of the similar tragedies her fellow competitors had suffered. 

"We actually spoke with Aryna Sabalenka about this, she shared some moments with me as well. It just happened to her a little bit earlier,” Ostapenko said.

“I mean, this is a very bad thing that can happen, especially when you don’t expect it. When you expect it and you know that the person is not healthy or something, it's another thing – you know it.

“But to lose such a close person I think it's very hard.

“Some tennis players also texted me and this was really nice from their side. They told me that if I need anyone to talk to, they're always open.”

The former world No.5 won the Roland Garros trophy in 2017

After an underwhelming 2019 season during which she fell as low as world No.83, Ostapenko experienced a significant upturn in fortunes in October.

She won nine of her last 10 matches, first advancing to the final in Linz before capping her season with the WTA title in Luxembourg.

She has since vaulted back inside the top 50.

Jevgenijs had witnessed, and enjoyed, his daughter’s return to form. And Ostapenko revealed that he had told her, while driving her to the airport for her flight to Auckland, that he had wanted to see her win big again – just as she had done on the clay courts of Roland Garros three years earlier.

"My dad was always believing in me,” she said.

She carries that memory of her father into her second-round match with Bencic on Thursday at Margaret Court Arena.

And it could serve as a powerful force as she continues on her path back to her very best, just as he wished to see.