April 19, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

The match Tuesday night in Bogotá between No. 1 seed Jelena Ostapenko Latvia and big-time underdog Kristie Ahn was chock-full of drama.

At more than 8,600 feet of altitude, the Latvian’s already-inconsistent serve was put to a stern test.

And after 2 1/2 hours and three saved match points, Ostapenko succumbed to the No. 205-ranked Ahn, one of several lucky losers to make the Bogotá draw after a rash of last-minute withdrawals.

This victory, against a former world No. 5 and French Open champion, was the biggest of the 26-year-old former college star’s career.

Ahn had suffered an eight-match losing streak in main-draw singles since defeating former No. 5 Eugenie Bouchard in the first round of the Chicago Challenger last September. That caused her ranking to plummet from No. 142 to as low as No. 226 earlier this year.

Coaching consult a highlight

But there was a really fun side story to this one, in addition to all of the crazy drama on the Bogotá center court.

Ahn, as the underdog, was getting a lot of support from the crowd – there were epic moments on the on-court coaching side.

But she also had the support of a growing and supportive NCAA sisterhood. It’s an under-reported story on the WTA, one that deserves more attention.

That they have other women to turn to – in a collegial spirit that harkens to their NCAA days – has to help during those moments when they’re finding it tough out there.

Most, like Ahn, aren’t in a position to have traveling coaches or sponsorship deals.

But with a big group of current and former college players traveling the circuit playing doubles together – often swapping out doubles partners depending on how tough the tournaments are to get into –  the American had some kindred spirits to choose from to lend a hand.

On this night, it was Canadian/Kiwi Erin Routliffe, herself a college star at Alabama and a former top junior.

Coaching advice – and laughs

The coaching consult at 4-5 in the third set, as Ostapenko had just broken Ahn and was about to serve for it, was full of laughs – and some good advice, too.

“When you’re returning, what really messes her up is when you change your positioning. She freaks out. You’re going to win this match if you take your chances,” Routliffe said.

“Anyway, this is great. Everyone loves the women’s on-court coach thing,” she added.

The downside of this, of course, is that these moments highlight the difference between the haves and the have-nots on the WTA Tour.

Having a full-time, professional coach is just one of the advantages that the players already ranked higher have against those aspiring to reach those heights.

But nobody said life was an even playing field.

A dramatic finish

There was an overrule, then a corrected overrule, in Ostapenko’s “favor” on a break point in that 10th game. Ostapenko had already double-faulted – No. 13 on the night – on match point.

After that, on her second match point, she double-faulted again. And then, on the third break point, she double-faulted – again.

Suddenly, Ostapenko was serving at 5-6 to stay in the match. And at love-40, it got even crazier.

Somehow, the Latvian saved three match points. She missed a sitter backhand into an open court by a mile to hold serve and force a tiebreak. On her fourth opportunity, Ahn closed it out.

It was hard to tell on the WTATV stream. But it looked like an excellent crowd – especially on a chilly Tuesday night. And they were right into it – notably, a number of girls and young women were hanging on every point.

Coaching stress for Routliffe

The 23-year-old Routliffe, close to her best career doubles ranking at No. 102, had great fun with the people in the next box. Although she told Open Court Wednesday that it was all pretty stressful.

She would be just the right person you would want to come out and give you a pep talk, though. Smart, bubbly, and so positive, it seemed she had just the right things to say to help Ahn get over the line – with some help from Ahn’s tenacity and Ostapenko’s 56 unforced errors (including 16 double-faults).

New Zealand-born, Canadian raised, Routliffe has opted to represent New Zealand because of a greater number of opportunities that would present.

Despite her impressive junior resumé, standout college career and promising results on the doubles circuit, she appears to be far down on the Tennis Canada pecking order.

The tournament didn’t update the on-court coaching sign-in. So fans watching at home may have thought Routliffe was actually another blonde, American Hayley Carter, dispensing the advice and the laughs. Carter had been by Ahn’s side during the qualifying.

Routliffe said she expected to be back on the job Wednesday, when Ahn plays local wild card Maria Camila Osorio Serrano in her second-round match.

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