WIMBLEDON -- In May, as the French Open approached, defending champion Jelena Ostapenko began to feel the pressure gathering like a storm cloud on the Parisian horizon. By the time the tournament started, she was tight and anxious. She was upset in the first round.
"I expected something like that can happen because I'm still very young, all that pressure that was on me," Ostapenko said after advancing to the Wimbledon quarterfinals on Manic Monday. I mean, it was quite big. I just lost that match. I tried to forget it as quick as possible."
Ostapenko returned home after Roland Garros, took a few days off and celebrated her 21st birthday. Then she began to prepare for the grass-court season, where things have turned out a little differently. This most vehement of ball-strikers is swinging freely again, as she showed while belting her way to a 79-minute 7-6 (4), 6-0 win against No. 50 ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
"All that pressure, now it's gone," Ostapenko said. "Finally it's gone. Now it's another tournament, another great opportunity for me. I'm just not afraid to miss. I'm just going for the shots. I think I'm serving very well this tournament. In general, I think my level is much better."
That's a fair warning to the rest of the field from a woman who made quite a statement in 2017 when she skipped the baby steps and picked up her first tournament win on the pro tour -- at a Grand Slam. It wasn't just that she won, but how she won: swinging from the heels, seemingly impervious to pressure (or prudence), a bounce in her step and a smile on her face all the way.
Ostapenko backed up that win with a nice run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals and played well enough the rest of the year to finish No. 7 in the world. But with time to ponder her status in the offseason, she felt anxious about the coming year. She held her own in the spring of 2018, despite the fail at the French Open. Now Ostapenko feels fine, partly because the grass at Wimbledon might be even more friendly to Ostapenko's game than the French clay on which she vaulted -- or was it slid? -- to fame.
"I think grass is a bit better for my game because the rallies are not that long," Ostapenko said. "Especially if I'm serving well, there are no long rallies. I think it's much better for me."
Other elements that point toward grass as potentially being Ostapenko's best surface: She has a compact backswing that allows her adequate time to prepare her shot. She hits groundstrokes relatively flat but with great velocity, which takes time away from her opponent and also yields a low bounce on grass. Ostapenko also has a big serve, although her mechanics are still a little rough, and may be prone to breaking down under pressure.
"In this tournament, she seems to be in the right mood," said Dominika Cibulkova, who will play Ostapenko in Tuesday's quarterfinals. "She's aggressive. She's playing with no fear. She's just going for it. I think it's going to be a match with a lot of rallies, aggressive rallies, a lot of winners."
Through the first seven games Monday, Ostapenko offered Sasnovich eight break points and double-faulted away a game that put her opponent in the first-set driver's seat, serving at 5-2.
Then in the ensuing game, with Sasnovich serving in the oppressive heat on Court No. 2, chair umpire Julie Kjendlie gave Ostapenko a violation for receiving coaching.
Ostapenko, at the baseline, turned to the chair with a look of utter disbelief on her face. She slowly walked toward the official's chair, where she had a brief, unproductive conversation with Kjendlie.
Returning to the baseline Ostapenko looked disgusted, like she was ready to bag the whole thing, go find some shade and make plane reservations for Tuesday morning.
Instead, she snapped to life. She buckled down and broke Sasnovich, won the next game and the one after that, too. Soon Ostapenko was in a tiebreaker and not long after that she was blowing kisses to the four sides of the court following her win.
"Actually, I didn't even understand [why the code violation] was given, because I didn't really hear anybody saying anything," Ostapenko said. "Probably somebody from the crowd said something. But I didn't hear anyone from my team saying anything. That's why I spoke to the chair umpire. Actually that code violation made me even more motivated and angry, so I just started to play better."
A first-round Grand Slam humiliation here, an inexplicable code violation there. Ostapenko is not letting any setbacks, both large and small, detract from her Wimbledon aspirations.