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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Jelena Ostapenko happy to play support act to her 'idol' Serena Williams in Abu Dhabi

It's not often that the reigning French Open champion could be considered to be the support act in a match.

But given the amount of international and local interest there was in the return of Serena Williams after 11 months away from the game it was perhaps understandable that the 23-time grand slam champion hogged the limelight ahead of Saturday's exhibition match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.

But that was never going to bother Jelena Ostapenko, who was simply thrilled to be sharing the same court at the International Tennis Stadium at Zayed Sports City with the player she described as her "idol" growing up.

Ostapenko, 20, proved to be anything but starstruck though as she won 6-2, 3-6, 10-5 to demonstrate that she is a real contender for more grand slam success in 2018.

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Even in victory the Latvian was still not the centre of attention, with her news conference dominated by questions about her opponent.

The grin on Ostapenko's face told the story of how much she had enjoyed her day.

"It was great as she was my idol since I was growing up and I was watching her matches," she said.

"Especially to play against her here in Abu Dhabi for the first time and it was very nice."

Williams' slow movement on court, particularly in the first set, was ruthlessly exposed by some searing winners from Ostapenko.

Though the 36-year-old American improved as the match went on, and capitalised on Ostapenko's misfiring second serve, the world No 7 showed her mettle to bounce back and win the championship tie-break to decide the winner.

"I think both of us were having a good time and having some good rallies and serving and returning well," Ostapenko said.

"I think it is great to have such matches for your experience."

Inevitably Ostapenko was asked about how she thought Williams, whose own serve seemed to waiver between solid to soft, had fared.

"It is hard for her, of course," she said. "She got a baby just four months ago and it was her first match. But I was very honoured to play against her in her first match."

Despite her victoryr, Ostapenko was impressed with how competitive Williams had been, particularly as the match wore on.

"I think she was playing pretty good," Ostapenko said. "I mean, she is such a great champion and a talented player I think not many players can play at such a high level after being out for a long time."

Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia serves against Serena Williams of United States. Tom Dulat / Getty Images
Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia serves against Serena Williams of United States. Tom Dulat / Getty Images

Ostapenko arrived in the UAE on Friday where she practiced for a couple of hours, and she said she would always have fond memories of her first visit to Abu Dhabi for allowing her to spend time on and off court with Williams.

"I talked to [Williams] yesterday and today and I think she is a very nice person," Ostapenko said. "As I said, also my idol, so it is great for me to have an opportunity to talk to her."

The challenge for Ostapenko is to build on a year that has seen her rise from No 44 at the start of the year to being established in the top 10.

As to where she sees herself as 2017 comes to a close, she said: "I think I worked on a couple of things already in pre-season but I am feeling good and I am looking forward to the next season."

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