NEW YORK — Late Sunday night, as Jelena Ostapenko was starting to stagger No. 1 seed Iga Swiatek with a flurry of winners that knocked her out of the U.S. Open, Jonah Soble moved from his seat in Arthur Ashe Stadium to a section where his fellow Ostapenko fans were watching her performance almost in disbelief.
“The moment I sat with them she didn’t lose another game except one in the third set,” Soble told USA TODAY Sports. “It was one of the most special moments I can ever recall being a tennis fan.”
But it was special for a unique reason: The ticket that got Soble into the match to begin with came from Ostapenko herself.
What started at the French Open earlier this year with Soble sitting in the front row at one of Ostapenko’s matches progressed to some interactions with his photos of her on Instagram and ultimately a shot-in-the-dark direct message on Sunday morning to see if there was any way she could get him into the stadium to root for her against the defending U.S. Open champ.
As he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Ostapenko came through.
“It was one of the most incredibly kind gestures I’ve ever been involved in,” said Soble, 28, who traveled from Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend the first week of the Open.
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A 26-year old from Latvia who is best known for her out-of-nowhere win in the 2017 French Open, Ostapenko will likely not have much visible crowd support Tuesday when she plays Coco Gauff in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
But the fact that Ostapenko hooked up one of her superfans with tickets on the day of such an important match kind of explains what makes her such a fascination among hard-core followers of the WTA Tour.
Between her all-or-nothing style of play, brightly colored clothes, eye rolls following every on-court injustice and the cold handshakes she offers after losses, Ostapenko stands out as a source of constant entertainment − and drama.
“She’s someone I’ve been drawn to,” Soble said. “I’m gay and she’s a gay icon to be honest. She just does her thing and the gays have noticed how individualistic and special and iconic she is. It’s very much a cult following.”
But what makes Ostapenko so alluring, whether you’re in the LGBTQ community or not, is that you never know what you’re going to get when she steps on the court. One way or another, though, it’s usually going to end up as social media meme.
In one match, you might see her arguing every close call with the electronic line calling system even though she knows there’s no point. The next you could see her shooing a fan out of the stadium who was loudly rooting for her third-round opponent Bernarda Pera. Or, when her game is as dialed in as it was Sunday night, she becomes pretty much unplayable because nobody in the women’s game possesses as much power or is willing to take on as much risk with every single shot.
“She’s hilarious and funny and doesn’t take herself too seriously,” Soble said. “But she’s extremely feared on the tour because her peak is probably the highest peak of anyone.”
Those peaks historically don’t come very often. After making the Wimbledon semifinal in 2018, she didn’t reach the quarters at another Grand Slam until this year’s Australian Open. In between, she had six first-round losses in 14 Slams.
But when Ostapenko hits a good run of form, her tennis is a breathtaking barrage of laser-like winners that left even a champion like Swiatek befuddled about what to do.
“I think the main thing is that she doesn’t really like to play against big hitters,” Ostapenko said. “She likes to have some time. When I play fast, aggressive and powerful, she’s a little bit in trouble.”
That kind of subtle trash talk − usually said with a wink and a smile − defines Ostapenko’s irrational confidence. She walks out onto the court believing the match is in her hands. And when she doesn’t win, you usually won’t find a lot of phony praise heaped on opponents.
After committing 57 unforced errors in a loss to Tatjana Maria last year at Wimbledon, Ostapenko called her opponent “very lucky” and claimed that she had played the better match. Caroline Wozniacki practiced with her once and vowed “never again.” Alja Tomljanovic accused her of faking an injury to get a medical timeout two years ago at Wimbledon, with Ostapenko calling her “the worst player on tour” in response.
We could go on and on. She isn’t there to be friends.
But when she wins?
“It’s like ‘Penko’ party,” Soble said.
And he’s been in on it for years, including several fairly lean ones from a results standpoint. But this year, he decided to attend the French Open and made sure to grab a prominent spot on one of the outer courts to make sure his fandom was noticed during a first-round match against Tereza Martincova.
Ostapenko, who frequently interacts with fans on Instagram and re-posts their pictures, reached out to Soble directly to thank him for the support.
On Wednesday, he once again was able to score a close seat near her coaches during her second-round match against Elina Avanesyan. After surviving 80 unforced errors to win 7-5 in the third, Soble said she looked directly at him after the final point and they both screamed.
“It was intense,” he said. “It was an incredible bonding moment because it felt like I was able to help her stay motivated in a way.”
Feeling comfortable that Ostapenko kind of knew who he was at this point, Soble worked up the courage to make the ticket request because he didn’t have one for the Ashe night session, specifying that there was no pressure and he was with her win or lose.
The shock that she came through confirmed why he had always felt a special connection.
“I think she once she recognizes your Team Penko, she’ll do anything for you,” Soble said. “One of my biggest flaws is I care too much what other people think, and to love a tennis player who doesn’t give any care about what strangers think about her on the Internet, she’s one of the most confident people I know despite people body shaming her sometimes or other things about her. She always rises above and never ever focuses on the hate. I always find that really inspiring.”