Ostapenko, from ballroom dancer to Grand Slam champion

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By AFP
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Jelena Ostapenko’s first love was ballroom dancing but judging by the bruising manner in which she demolished Simona Halep to win the French Open, it could just as well have been boxing.

The 20-year-old muscled 54 winners past the Romanian who was so shell-shocked by her 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 defeat that she admitted she felt “sick to the stomach”.

Much was made of Ostapenko’s love of the dance floor at Roland Garros where her guarded relationship with the media was at odds with her free spirit on the court.

She fired 299 winners during the tournament, the most by any man or woman, in a breathless and refreshing change-up from the too-often defensive mundanity of the women’s tour.

There’s grace in that brutal hitting, the steady footwork which is its foundation a legacy of her balance and quick feet in the ballroom.

“At home in Riga when I am there I try and go ballroom dancing four times a week,” she told AFP earlier in the tournament.

“It really helps with the footwork on the court. My favourite dance? The Samba, of course.”

Ostapenko said she did ballroom dancing for seven years as a child, took a break for another seven years, before dusting off the sequins in 2014.

“I have the dress, the shoes — everything has to be matching. I go to a club and dance with the teacher there, he’s a professional dancer.”

In Latvia, Jelena is better known as ‘Alona’, and that is the name she uses among friends and family.

But names are tightly regulated in Latvia and while ‘Alona’ does not appear on the official list of legally acceptable Latvian names, Jelena does, and so that is the name she uses in order to avoid paperwork mix-ups on the world tour.

She comes from a sporting family.

Father Jevgenijs Ostapenko was a goalkeeper with Ukrainian club Metalurh Zaporizhya and mother Jelena Jakovleva is a tennis coach.

Speaking to the LTV7 TV channel following his daughter’s semi-final victory over Timea Bacsinszky, Jevgenijs said: “We always believed it (getting to a Slam final) would happen — and even thought it might happen sooner.”

But the early years in tennis weren’t easy for Ostapenko as her family scrambled around for the money to finance her daughter’s career.

“We had to find a few different sources of revenue — via the internet, doing a few different jobs, using our savings. But we found enough money — luckily two generous benefactors appeared who gave us money and asked to remain anonymous,” said Jevgenijs.

But it paid off with his daughter winning junior Wimbledon in 2014.

Money will no longer be a problem for either Ostapenko, her mother and father or half-brother Maksim who lives in Los Angeles — her Roland Garros victory was worth over $2 million in prize money.

That, however, may not turn Ostapenko’s head.

She does not have a Twitter account and such was her low-key nature before Saturday that when she reached the final, the president of Latvia Raimonds Vejonis had to congratulate her through her mother.

“He actually called my mom. So that’s what she told me. I mean, because nobody knows my phone number,” she said.

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