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‘Everyone is afraid to play her’ – Why coach Bartoli says Ostapenko is one to watch this year

It’s been a while coming, but the hard work is paying off for the Latvian and her coach

Marion Bartoli and Jelena Ostapenko © Chryslene Caillaud / Panoramic

Broadcaster, pundit, and Match Points panellist – Marion Bartoli is also a tennis coach. She has been working with Jelena Ostapenko for more than two years now, and this week, with the Latvian’s amazing run in Dubai, Bartoli feels that we are finally seeing the 24-year-old back to her best, and the hard work paying off. The 24-year-old beat four former Grand Slam champions en route to the final – and in three of those matches she fought back from a set down to win.

We spoke to Bartoli shortly after the trophy ceremony in Dubai to find out what her relationship is like with Ostapenko – who she refers to by her given name ‘Aljona’ – plus what they’ve worked on in recent months, and what she’s like as a coach.

Marion, you must be so proud of her this week.

Yeah, it’s been a really incredible week. She was playing great since the beginning of the year, except the first tournament in Sydney, but it’s never easy for her right after pre-season to find her rhythm because she’s really an aggressive player. So she needs a couple of matches before she can really find a rhythm, but this week straightaway against Kenin in the first round you could see she was hitting the ball extremely cleanly.

And then, she was able to really fight mentally so well, which I was really the most proud of her, because I know she has the game, but sometimes when it gets tough against some great players she can check out a little bit mentally, but it was not the case at all this week. She beat Iga Swiatek in three sets, she beat Petra Kvitova in three sets , having Petra serving for the match on multiple occasions, so she really showed her fighting spirit, which was really the most impressive this week.

To get to the final sometimes you have to beat Grand Slam champions just the way she did it – it was really something quite special because I always knew she had the game, I always knew she had the potential. But it was about putting the pieces together of the puzzle and for me this week is going to be really pivotal into having Aljona back where she belongs, which is the top ten.

Four Grand Slam champions beaten in a row. That's incredible.

Absolutely, but that’s why it makes this tournament even more special because sometimes, obviously, the toughness of the draw can really vary week by week. Dubai always has a very strong field and this year was really absolutely incredible. The cut into the main draw was top 30, so she knew she would have to face straightaway a really high level of competition, but the draw she had to face was, I mean, honestly, it can’t get tougher than this, and she just kept on playing back to back, she’s in the finals in doubles as well.

So she showed that physically she’s also really fit to be able to compile all those matches in a row. So for me, once again, I was waiting for that week since a long time but she has really proven that she’s back at her best level.

Jelena Ostapenko
Jelena Ostapenko, in Dubai with her trophy (Panoramic)

Of course it is easy to forget because it happened a few years ago now but she is a former Grand Slam champion herself, as she won Roland-Garros in 2017. So that must be what you're expecting her to do in the near future – add more major titles to the trophy cabinet.

Absolutely. When I started to work with her, she was ranked 90th in the world. She really lost a lot of confidence. She had high expectation on herself and also from the outside and it was tough for her to cope with everything. So first of all, it was about giving her that confidence back, then it was building some part of her game that was already a strength, obviously, to just make sure they were all still there and just work a little bit on her serve and tactical because she has so much firepower that sometimes she has too much tactical options, so to make it quite simple for her so she could rely on that constantly.

And that was for me once again the key this week, she kept on doing what she knows well, without changing it. And even though maybe the opponent knows where the ball is coming, it comes so fast and so close to the line that there is no one that can play it. Sometimes Aljona was a bit confused on whether she should change her tactic, because players start to know how she plays, and for me it was more about the consistency of playing great tennis, point in and point out, without having to change really where she plays the ball, and that has been really the work we have done together.

Great to see that now she’s really back at her best level.

Marion Bartoli on Jelena Ostapenko

And from what I can see from what you said about her previously I get the feeling that she reminds you a little bit of you in your younger days. Would that be fair?

Yes! We were talking about it when I was in tournaments with her, when I was going to tournaments before my pregnancy. My game style was really quite similar to hers, and that’s why I understand her game so well because I was playing quite the same style – a lot very aggressive on the return of serve, looking for the winner on the return of the second serve. All of that was really also my game plan every time so I understand her tactic patterns, I understand what she’s looking and trying to achieve, and then it was about giving her the confidence that she can do it and just giving her one or two tips for the type of game style to just stick to, without having too many information in her head.

So that’s why it’s been a really cool collaboration to have because we’ve been starting to work together at the end of 2019 and it’s been an ongoing work, now more on the tactical part of it, and also when she’s not in tournament because obviously I’m with my baby and it’s a lot tougher for me to travel, but when we see each other in the Grand Slams, we have more time to spend together and before each match she would ask me on the tactic, always asked me how she played from the match before and stuff, so we kept that relationship, and it’s great to see that now she’s really back at her best level. I think all the players really are afraid to play against her, but it was about time to really get her back on track, and now her ranking is going to rise and she will be close to the top 15, I believe. So it’s all going in the right direction. If she can do better in Grand Slams, then she’s going to be very fast in the top 10.

You mentioned consistency: she can be absolutely brilliant or as you said sometimes she seems to mentally check out. How do you work on improving a player's consistency if it's a confidence thing?

Yeah, it was really about giving her confidence back. She has a very aggressive game, but sometimes she’s lacking a bit of confidence in herself, and obviously having so much pressure of winning very early on a Grand Slam and you expect yourself to do so well every single time. Maybe the same was happening for Sofia Kenin after winning the Australian Open, everything became a lot more difficult for her. And for Aljona that was the case. Sometimes she just felt like every time she was on the court she had to play the same way as she did to win Roland-Garros.

And obviously for me it was just giving her that perspective that some days are better than others. And yes, she always had this firepower in her racquet but sometimes you just have to channel it, sometimes you have to dig in into matches before the next day. Maybe you’re going to play better and it was about bringing that perspective into her game and her thought process as well, because she was really sometimes too harsh on herself.

You have to understand your player – you have to get to know her better

Marion Bartoli on working with Ostapenko

How do you talk to someone like that who's won a Grand Slam so early on, when you know that she's got the potential to win more, but doesn't have the confidence in herself? That must be quite challenging to deal with for you as a coach.

Yeah, it was, but that’s why it took a bit of time, because you have to understand your player, you have to get to know her better. So obviously we had one or two technical things to work on, especially on the serve, to give her a bit more confidence in that shot. And then it’s just about trying to figure it out, when you coach her, what she’s the most receptive of and what works best and that’s why it took a bit of time because sometimes if you go too hard and she’s sort of blocking and doesn’t want to try it or implement it – sometimes she just, it’d be too loose on herself and she she goes on court she’s a bit lost.

So it was trying to find the right balance between giving her a pattern so she can stick to but giving her the freedom also to be creative on the court and go for what she thinks she should do. So it’s about getting to know your player, navigate through her feelings as well, navigate through what works for her. And I’m just really happy that everything started to click now and she’s playing more consistent tennis. She played well in St Petersburg, she played well in the Australian Open, and she pushed [Barbora] Krejcikova 6-4 in the third. She played amazing this week. She’s proving that week in and week out now she can play some great tennis.

And tell me a little bit about you as a coach, what kind of coach are you? Are you very tough?

Well, I’m the same as I was on the court. I’m very intense. I live and breathe every single point she’s playing. So I feel the same nerves as she can feel on the court with my player all the time. Then, of course, I had the habit to work extremely hard for myself; for Aljona it might be different because she had the different background but I’m always very intense, whether it’s on the practice or when she’s playing a match, and I think she appreciates it because she knows I can feel what she’s feeling. That’s why I think a lot of current players are looking to hire the ex-players, because ex-players, we have that background of knowing exactly what it feels to play under pressure, what it feels to play under the spotlight, with that many points to defend one week or whatever they face usually we have faced it ourselves so they’re trusting our opinions slightly more.

I know that she also said that you were quite friendly before you started coaching her. Are you still friends and does that make it hard to tell her off if she needs it?

Yeah, we have a great bonding. We remain friends and sometimes she has a tough day and she plays a bad match but it happens and I understand her and it’s about trying to get the message across so don’t be too friendly, but also keep that relationship, because obviously that’s why it works so well as well, because at the end of the day, we will remain friends. So yeah, it’s an interesting one, but I think that’s because we go along so well outside of the court that we have been able to trust ourselves over the years.

And how will you be celebrating the win?

Well, she has to play in very soon in Doha so we’ll see what she wants to do but I’m sure a lovely dinner and yeah, just a fun girls’ night!

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