Unseeded Ostapenko takes Roland Garros

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ROLAND GARROS – That sound you heard in Paris’s 16th arrondissement over the last fortnight was the sound of a whirling dervish mowing down a field of 128 women aspiring to win the French Open.

The 2017 women’s singles champion turned 20 two days ago, is unseeded, oblivious, insouciant – and the first Latvian ever to win a major title.

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Jelena Ostapenko defeated No. 3 seed Simona Halep of Romania 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in a final that had plenty of twists and turns, and a whole lot at stake for the runner-up.

“I’m really happy to win here. I think I’m still – I still cannot believe it, because it was my dream and now it came true. I think I’m going to only understand that in maybe couple of days or couple of weeks,” Ostapenko said.

Fighting all the way 

For the young champion, it looked on the outside like another day at the office. It’s an attitude she brought to every one of her seven matches over the last two weeks, especially the ones in which she was in trouble.

Down a set in the fourth round against 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur, Ostapenko pulled it off. In the quarter-finals against former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki – a match interrupted three times by rain, once overnight – she lost the first five games of the match. When she’d regained the momentum in the second set, she had all night to think about it. But when the returned the next day she picked right up where she left off.

Against 28-year-old Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals, Ostapenko had her typical ups and downs. But if there was a thread woven through her last few matches, it was the abject lack of winners by her opponents. As they constructed points and waited for the opportunity to hit those winners, she jumped the line and made it happen herself – or not. But mostly, she did.

In the crucial moments, she really did.

Fun with hardware and coach Anabel Medina Garrigues in the locker room after Jelena Ostapenko’s win (Corinne Dubreuil/FFT)

Ostapenko a breath of fresh air

It had been a decade since there was a teenager in the semi-finals here, which Ostapenko was until Thursday, when she turned 20. That was Ana Ivanovic, whose retirement ceremony came between the two women’s semi-finals on Thursday. Ivanovic won it as well.

Ostapenko
Simona Halep seemed to have it in the bag. But she couldn’t close the deal against Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open women’s final.

How refreshing it was, to see that youthful energy. In a game in which the major players no longer are teenaged prodigies – and even the young 20-somethings act as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders – it’s gone missing.

So often in recent years, winning has seemed like a relief rather than a thrill to the victors.

Ostapenko harkens back to the early days of Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, in a good way.

As it happens, the last player to come back from a set down and win in a French Open women’s final was … Capriati, in 2001.

Pressure building for Halep

At 25, Halep was the more experienced and by consensus the superior clay-court player.

Had she won the match she not only would have earned her first Grand Slam title, she also would have become the No. 1 player in the world.

Was it too much to handle? Maybe it was. Especially as Halep was the clear favourite. 

When the only thing standing in the way of your dreams is an inexperienced, unseeded opponent, you absolutely have to seize that day. There was no bigger pressure than the pressure she was putting on herself.

Halep had it. She was up a set and 3-0, with a couple of opportunities to make it 4-0 and perhaps run away with it. She couldn’t do it.

“I was losing 6-4, 3-0, and then in my mind I was just, I’m just going to enjoy the match, and I will try to fight until the last point. And then I stayed aggressive and the match turned my way,” Ostapenko said. “I think Simona, maybe she felt a little bit nervous because she had a lot of pressure. That also helped me. But also in the deciding moments, I think I played pretty well in those games. And was couple of deciding games and then the match turned the other way.”

Perhaps the turning point was a break point at 3-3 in the third set. A backhand Ostapenko was trying to shoot down the line appeared to be going way wide – until it hit the top of the net, bounced up, changed trajectory and landed so short inside the court, Halep had no chance to catch up to it. 

Met every challenge – until the last

The Romanian had done plenty of fighting of her own during the two weeks, especially after a nasty ankle injury in Rome put her participation in doubt before the tournament even began.

She was done and dusted against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals, down a set and 5-1 before she turned it around and won the match 6-0 in the third.

Halep had been here once before; she lost to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 final. “This one hurts a lot maybe because I am more -– I realize more what is happening. Three years ago was something new, so now I know. Hurts a lot, and I need time just to – I don’t know. To go away.”

The Romanian made an astonishing admission on court during the trophy ceremony.

“I can say that I was sick in the stomach before playing this final. Maybe I wasn’t ready to win it. But I want to. It’s my dream,” she said.

To feel that uncertainty is one thing. To admit it so publicly is another. And in Halep’s doubt is mirrored similar doubt from so many of the other top women in the game right now.

There was no Serena Williams on court in Paris. No Maria Sharapova. A defending champion in Garbiñe Muguruza who appeared nowhere near emotionally ready to give her title defence a real shot. You had a No. 1, Angelique Kerber, who went out so meekly to Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova in the first round it was as though she had never even been here.

Ostapenko
(Corinne Dubreuil/FFT)

As much as there has been talk in recent years of major titles being up for grabs, that was literally true at this French Open. And it seemed no one was prepared to take that opportunity and wrestle it into submission.

It almost seemed, at times, that it was a matter of who wasn’t going to lose it, more than someone actually winning it.

There for the taking

The likes of Kerber, Halep, Muguruza, Wozniacki, Radwanska and many more have a lot of scar tissue built up already. With Williams’ sporadic presence, Azarenka’s maternity break and Sharapova’s absence over the last 18 months, it’s been right there for all of them.

Perhaps, in a sense, Serena’s sabbatical has hurt more than it helped. When she was around, there was always the sense of, well, Serena is the best player in the world. If I don’t win a Slam, it’s pretty understandable.

Once that barrier was removed, the true test began. So far, it’s been a tough test to pass.

So, in hindsight, it almost makes sense that Ostapenko, who appears impervious to pressure in this early blush of her career, was there in the end. She wasn’t afraid to lose it. So she went out and won it.

That aggressive attitude seems very much be part of her makeup. “I think nobody (taught) me. It’s just the way I play. And also I think my character is like that. So I want to really hit the ball (hard),” she said. 

This is her first tournament title of any kind at the top level – WTA Tour, or Grand Slam. Perhaps it was predestined; the last time this happened was in 1997, when Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, ranked No. 66, did the very same thing.

The day he did it – June 8, 1997 – Ostapenko was born.

A loss that stings

For Halep, it has to be a bitter pill. Her tune-up season went about as well as it could; this French Open was hers to win.

Except, perhaps she didn’t believe it was her time. And if she didn’t believe it this week, you wonder when she will believe it again.

“She played really well, all the credit. She was hitting very strong. At some point I was like a spectator on court. She deserved to win. … It’s a tough moment for me, but it’s gonna go away, I hope, with the time,” Halep said.  “I don’t believe I did something wrong – too wrong – today. … At least I can say I was there, I was close, but again, I lost it.

“Cannot change anything, so I just have to look forward.”

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