Wimbledon 2017

Age no barrier at Wimbledon as Venus Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep vie for big prizes

French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko will take on Venus Williams in the Wimbledon quarter-finals on Tuesday

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis at Wimbledon
Jelena Ostapenko is through to the last eight Photo: Corinne Dubreuil, FFT

It has been the watchword almost since the start of this fascinating women’s draw at the Wimbledon Championships.

Ask a dozen people who would win the title this year, especially in the absence of defending champion Serena Williams as she expects her first child, and two-time former champion Maria Sharapova, who pulled out of the qualifying tournament with injury, and you would get a dozen answers. And that remained the case even once the draw was reduced to 16 for ‘Manic Monday’.

Major champions and Major finalists were prominent among them. Five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams was joined by five winners at other Majors: Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko.

Three of Wimbledon’s most prolific women’s match-winners were there. After Williams came Kuznetsova and Agnieszka Radwanska—also a former finalist.

When Azarenka announced her early return to the tour following the birth of her baby in December, and especially after winning only a single match since playing the French Open in 2016 before she arrived in London, few gave her too much of a chance. But she looked fighting fit, in mind and body, and all at once, was also in contention.

Two of the biggest names in the draw, the top two seeds Kerber and Simona Halep, had not just a first Wimbledon title in their sights. They were vying for No1 as well. Kerber needed to reach the final to retain the top spot—and though a runner-up here last year, she played another former runner-up and fellow Major champion, Muguruza.

Halep had her own mountain to climb: She had to beat former No1 Azarenka and reach at least the semis. Should she and Kerber fall short, one of the early favourites for the title, Karolina Pliskova, would rise to No1 even though she lost in the first round here.

But two of the youngest women among the 16 were also being touted as possible winners: One of them, 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko had even done it already at Roland Garros, while 22-year-old Elina Svitolina had won four titles this year, including big Premiers in Rome and Dubai. But only one could reach the quarters here, because they played one another for the first time.

Ostapenko was still a teenager and ranked 47 when she arrived at Roland Garros this year, and by the time she left, she was no longer a teenager, and had beaten the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Halep to win the title.

But she left with the parting shot that she loved playing on grass—even thought it may be her best surface—and she was in fact one of the Wimbledon junior champions in the draw.

She soon proved these were no empty words. In her third visit to the tournament, she powered with apparently no nerves and no inhibitions, through each opponent, and even against the impressive Svitolina, she looked as though she had no doubts about her ability to win—and not just this match, but the title.

It took her only 36 minutes to pound through the first set. She broke in the first game, held serve with two backhand winners, broke again in the fifth game, 4-1, and with some impressive low hitting to the and from the corners.

Svitolina got one break back, and almost had another, but failed to convert any of three break points and the effort cost her dear: Ostapenko broke for the set, 6-3.

The second set would prove to be longer, tougher and harder to predict. It took over an hour, as first one broke, and then the other. Ostapenko showed all her grit—truly impressive in one so young—with an 11-minute hold, and went on to break in the next game, 4-2.

She served for the match, only to concede the break—a first and rare sign of nerves—and now Svitolina looked the more experienced and more composed having saved a handful of match-points. She held and broke, and now it was her turn to serve for the set. But Ostapenko dug in and levelled. It would go to a tie-break.

Svitolina took the first advantage, but Ostapenko turned it around, and would eventually take the game and set on her eighth match point, 7-6(6).

The nature of her game, all-out attack, was reflected in the stats: 42 winners to 39 errors. And it sets one of the most intriguing showdowns of the tournament so far, against the formidable veteran Venus Williams—17 years her senior, and not one to hold back on her ball striking either.

But again, in press, Ostapenko showed she is a no-nonsense, bold and confident young woman. Asked how she viewed her next match, she was short and to the point:

“I mean, she’s such a great player. I will just go on court and enjoy the match because I really have nothing to lose.”

It transpires, in any case, that the young Ostapenko was more interesting Williams’ sister Serena:

“I think I was watching more her sister’s matches because she was kind of my idol. Maybe I saw, like, a couple of finals, she was playing the Grand Slams. Honestly, I don’t remember.”

As for perhaps feeling nervous about playing on Wimbledon’s biggest stage, her reply said it all:

“I like to play with a lot of people watching me, with a crowd. I really enjoy that. I don’t like when I play and nobody’s watching the match. I mean, it’s not fun. It’s more fun when a lot of people are watching it and the crowd is really loud.”

Don’t miss that one, pitching the old generation against the future in no uncertain terms.

Elsewhere, Halep kept alive her claim to the No1 ranking by beating Azarenka in straight sets, 7-6(3), 6-2. Her cause was significantly helped by the exit of Kerber to Muguruza in a 2hr 20mins thriller, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Halep needs to win two more matches, though, and the next will be against Johanna Konta, who leads their head-to-head, 2-0.

Muguruza will next face the other veteran to advance to the quarters, Kuznetsova, who has dominated the rivalry with Radwanska. The Russian beat the Pole, 6-2, 6-2, her 14th win in 18 meetings.

The other quarter-final in the top half will be contested between No24 seed Coco Vandeweghe, who beat Caroline Wozniacki, 7-6(4), 6-4, and Magdalena Rybarikova, who is into her first Wimbledon quarter-final after beating Petra Martic, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.

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