World No. 7 Jelena Ostapenko is “excited” to face Serena Williams for the first time, the Roland Garros champion told reporters ahead of her exhibition match with the American superstar, taking place in Abu Dhabi on Saturday (17:00 local time).
The Latvian youngster, who pulled off one of the biggest surprises of 2017 when she upset Simona Halep to win the French Open last June, has long admired Williams and the pair have never faced each other on tour.
Williams, 36, is set to make her first appearance in almost a year. The 23-time Grand Slam champion hasn’t played a match since winning the Australian Open last January, and had her first child, Alexis Olympia, in September.
“I’m really honoured to play Serena in her first match after her comeback and I think it’s such a great opportunity,” Ostapenko said at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) on Friday.
“She was my idol when I was growing up and I really liked the style she was playing and I think she’s very big for women’s tennis.
“I’m a little excited because I’ve never played her. To play such a great champion of course I have nothing to lose and I will just enjoy the match.”
Saturday’s showdown will mark the first time a women’s tennis match is ever played at the MWTC at Zayed Sports City.
Ostapenko followed her French Open breakthrough by reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and ended 2017 by winning the title in Seoul — the second trophy of her career — and making semis in Wuhan and Beijing before featuring in the WTA Finals in Singapore for the first time. She’s hoping she keep her success going in 2018.
“Of course it’s not going to be easy after such a great season but I prepared well and I’m just going to try and show my best at the Grand Slams and try to be in the top-10,” said the 20-year-old.
Ostapenko hired David Taylor to coach her, alongside her mother, and they will next meet up in Sydney in preparation for the Australian Open.
Back home in Riga, Ostapenko was treated like a megastar after her triumph in Paris.
“When I was back home I got so many awards, like the best athlete in Latvia, the best tennis player, the best athlete in Riga, the biggest person from Latvia in Europe, so I had like five awards so I think it shows that the season was pretty good.”
Things are tight in the WTA at the top and the No. 1 ranking can actually switch hands in the very first week of the new season, with Garbine Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki in with a chance to replace Halep at the summit.
Is getting to No. 1 a goal for Ostapenko?
“I’m not actually thinking about rankings when I play. I’m just really happy when I play well, I’m going to be happy with my game not with the ranking. If I play well I think the ranking will come higher anyway,” she says.
“Last year there were like four or five players becoming No. 1 so I think that means in the top-10 there are many players who can win Grand Slams.”
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