Madison Keys won the Volvo Car Open in Charleston. Kristie Ahn won the biggest match of her 2019 tennis season. These two players deserve credit and praise for their accomplishments. This should not be read as an attempt to minimize what they have done or are currently doing. Yet, one can simply note that Jelena Ostapenko and good tennis have had a divorce.
It is not a desired divorce. Ostapenko and quality tennis want to get back together again, but tennis — like life — involves all sorts of complicated relationships. Right now, the 2017 Roland Garros champion, who made the 2017 Wimbledon quarterfinals and then reached the 2018 Wimbledon semifinals, is walking through a cloudy valley. She has seen the tennis landscape from a mountaintop on a clear day, but right now, she has been brought low, and the sun is nowhere to be found.
Her loss to Ahn in Bogota merely confirmed what her week in Charleston showed: Ostapenko — still inclined to play hit-or-miss tennis the way she did when she conquered Paris two years ago — doesn’t steady herself the way she did when she triumphed in the City of Light. Her serve has not developed or evolved to the degree that she can more reliably protect her service games.
Any tennis player who notches a huge achievement then becomes a target for the rest of the tour. The tour has gained confidence and a greater margin for error against Ostapenko’s particular package of skills and vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities loom larger than the skills right now, and it is up to Ostapenko to reshape the balance of strengths and weaknesses in her game.
Madison Keys clearly engaged in patient problem-solving in Charleston, and she deserves immense credit for that. Yet, Keys came to South Carolina — like Ostapenko — in search of solutions. Match wins had been very scarce for her in recent months (not just weeks). The reality that Keys was struggling profoundly makes her win over Ostapenko important and encouraging for her… but it also shows that Ostapenko, who was fortunate to beat Shelby Rogers and merely GET to that match versus Keys, is objectively in a worse position relative to Keys.
That rates as a significant concern.
We will see if Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome do anything to change Ostapenko’s equation on clay.
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