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What a difference a year makes as Ostapenko and Stephens vie for Miami crown

Jelena Ostapenko will play in the final at the Miami Open a year after losing in the first round. Reuters/Geoff Burke

Rewind 365 days to March 2017. Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko, Saturday’s Miami Open finalists, were in an altogether different zone. Stephens was ranked 69th in the world and Jelena Ostapenko, five years her junior, was 64th in the WTA lists.

Stephens, though talented, seemed blighted. In October 2013, deemed one of the next big things on the circuit, the American was one win away from entering the top 10. The ascent into the upper echelons of the game never materialised and injuries and a seemingly poor attitude accounted for her demise.

But in September she stormed her way to the US Open title. Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay at the French Open in June was as unexpected as Stephens’ streak in New York.

The Latvian seems en route to consolidating her place as one of the major forces in the short attention span age. Hailing Serena Williams as her idol, Ostapenko claimed “the French” unleashing an array of missiles that would have done the younger Williams sister proud and stoked envy among Kremlin and Pentagon hawks.

And yet since their respective highs in New York and Paris, neither of the Miami finalists has claimed another championship. They have both struggled for form. No matter who emerges victorious, their performances at one of the tour’s most prestigious tournaments would announce a resurgence.

“Being in a final is extra special and you have to make sure you bring your best game to it, said Stephens on the eve of the showdown.

The American, who grew up in Plantation, 35 kilometres north of the tournament venue, will have the voice of the partisans during the battle as she tries to maintain a 100% record in finals following successes in Auckland, Acapulco, Charleston and Washington.

Ostapenko can’t boast that kind of perfection. Along with the French Open, she has won in Seoul while three defeats have come in Quebec, Doha and Charleston. But she is the higher ranked player and says she is feeling mentally more composed in her matches.

On 2 April, Stephens will enter the top 10 for the first time at number nine following her surge to the final. Ostapenko has been among the elite since last year and she will rise to number four in the world if she defeats Stephens.

With a new venue lined up for 2019 in the north of the city, it wouldn’t be a bad way for her to see off the old stadium either. On her debut in 2016, Ostapenko lost in the first round of qualifying to Sachia Vickery. In 2017, she lost in the first round of the main draw to Madison Brengle.

But that was a year ago.