Joyful French Open champ Ostapenko becomes 'symbol of Latvia'

20-year-old gets hero's welcome in home country

By HENRY YOUNG , CNN
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(CNN) - Newly-crowned French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko wasn't exaggerating when she said her victory over Simona Halep could be "quite a big deal in Latvia."

The 20-year-old is the first unseeded woman to win the Roland Garros final since 1933 and the first Latvian player in history to claim a major.

"All of the country watched the final, including thousands on the big screen next to the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga," Latvian ambassador Baiba Braze told CNN Sport.

"Jelena Ostapenko is a symbol of the Latvian people."

Politicians are already calling for her to be awarded with the Order of the Three Stars, in recognition of her achievement, while Latvian NBA player Kristaps Porzingis wrote of his pride, congratulating her on an "historic" victory.

'Strong people'

According to Braze, a former national javelin thrower in her own right, the reason for Ostapenko's success is the "lifestyle and tradition" in Latvia.

"We are strong people," the ambassador told CNN Sport, alluding to an Imperial College London study citing Latvian women as the tallest in the world. "We love outdoors, nature, eat healthily [and] have a good quality of life.

"We are hardworking, do not take anything for granted, endure difficulties and reach for our dreams."

Ostapenko might have only chosen tennis over ballroom dancing in recent years, but already boasts an average forehand speed of 76 mph --- on par with some of the ATP Tour's biggest names, and 3 mph faster than world No. 1 Andy Murray.

She hit 299 winners over the course of the tournament, including 54 to Halep's eight in the final.

Having earned a total of around $1.25 million throughout her whole career, the 100/1 outsider will now take home over $2 million from one event.

Lifechanging

Just three years ago, Ostapenko was a starstruck teen watching compatriot Ernests Gulbis from the Roland Garros player box.

Jelena Jakovleva, Ostapenko's mother and coach, had taken her to the French showpiece since she was just 11 or 12 years old.

"I was dreaming of course to play here because it's such a nice event," Ostapenko told CNN Sport. "Now, this year, I've become the Roland Garros champion. I'm really, really happy!

"Back home, I look forward to seeing my family and all my friends. I really love my country and my city."

Ostapenko returned to her native Riga Monday, greeted by the cheers of hundreds of adoring fans, and a red-carpet reception.

With a bashful smile and the Latvian flag on her shoulders, it was clear her life had changed forever.

Mere months ago Ostapenko, then 19, proudly announced she had hit 6,000 Instagram followers. She now has over 75,000.

The French Open was, after all, her first top-level title of any kind --- a feat not seen since unknown Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten delighted Parisian crowds on June 8, 1997: the day Ostapenko was born.

This was was also just her eighth career grand slam appearance --- the fewest by a champion since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova announced herself on the world stage in 2004 at Wimbledon.

What next?

Junior Wimbledon champion three years ago -- like Eugenie Bouchard (2012), Caroline Wozniaki (2006) and Martina Hingis (1994) before her -- Ostapenko will now travel to the All England Club with real hope of springing an upset.

She has swiftly ascended the WTA rankings from 47th to 12th and --- most portentously for her rivals --- leaves her least favorite surface behind her.

But for now, Ostapenko doesn't plan on changing.

"I'm going to shop a little bit but I'm not going to crazy," she said. "I don't really need anything.

"I have everything I need."

No wonder Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis marvels at his country's newest star, having personally telephoned the player to wish her luck ahead of the final.

"I am proud!" he enthused. "Hard work, character and fighting spirit: it's our Jelena Ostapenko."

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