Singapore WTA Tour Finals wrapup

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In the end, the WTA’s season finale in Singapore was a microcosm of the season on the women’s circuit.

One day, a player looked like a world beater.

The next day, she looked as though she didn’t belong anywhere near the top.

Poor followed very good and was followed by average in the order we came to expect in a topsy-turvy 2017.

But in the end, it was the two most seasoned players who came through.

Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams handled the almost-unplayable slowness of the Singapore court. They handled the round-robin format that seemed to stymie some of the younger players so programmed to the regular elimination format. 

And if Wozniacki held up the big trophy at the end, it was Williams who continued to write the story of the season.

The 37-year-old didn’t win the Player of the Year award – even in this season, you really had to win a major to get that one. But she deserved it.

A renaissance season for Venus

That Williams will finish No. 1 in prize money for 2017 speaks to her results. Among the players in the top 100, Williams played fewer weeks this year than anyone not sidelined with longer-term injuries (Stephens, Keys et al) or a suspension (Sharapova).

Williams’s longevity, her unquenchable and ongoing thirst for the fight, and her willingness to leave it all on the court despite the challenges she deals with continued in the season finale.

The tennis, mercifully, improved throughout the week. Perhaps the court sped up a little with regular use. Perhaps the players gradually adjusted to it. But in the end, the surface was a significant sidebar.

It allowed Wozniacki, a premier defensive player, to have the time she needed to do what she does best. And yet, even the 27-year-old Dane felt the urgency to finish off some points more quickly than she might have otherwise.

It’s been a long season.

The surface also hurt Williams, who found herself in some marathons earlier in the week and by the second set of the final, had simply run out of legs.

Disappearing doubles

On the doubles side, the decision last year to ditch the round-robin format used in singles and adopt a single-elimination format for the eight qualifying teams relegated it to a footnote for the week.

Had it not been for the retirement of Martina Hingis (who along with partner Yung-Jan Chan was eliminated in her second match, following her confirmation that this would indeed be her swan song), it might have passed virtually unnoticed.

For the four teams eliminated in the first round, the notion of working all season to get to Singapore, to fly all the way to Singapore, and to play just one match is a little unfair. 

But it was made necessary by the fluctuating crowd support in Singapore. 

The first edition in 2014 was a huge success on the attendance side. And while the WTA Tour kept the attendance figures on the down low in the intervening years (the numbers are not even available for 2016), they cut early-week day sessions. They cut the legends’ event. They reduced the “Rising Stars” component to a regional Asian event that also passed unnoticed.

(Remember 2015, when 22-year-old Caroline Garcia, already ranked No. 35, was considered a “rising star”? A little crazy. But a final between Garcia and Naomi Osaka that year certainly had more marquee value than this year’s finals between … Priska Nugroho and Pimrada Jattavapornvanit, and Megan Smith and Ya-Hsin Lee.)

Singapore results and grades

Singapore

[1] Simona Halep
Grade: C-

In her first round-robin match against Garcia, she looked like a world beater. It was Halep’s first match as the new world No. 1, and she played the part to perfection.

In her second, against Wozniacki, she won just two games. In her third, against Elina Svitolina, she won just seven games and was eliminated. 

She finishes the season ranked No. 1. But she didn’t finish it playing like a No. 1. Her challenge in 2018 will be to marry up those two concepts.

[2] Garbiñe Muguruza
Grade: C

The WTA Tour Player of the Year, the Wimbledon champion, didn’t finish her season the way she wanted to.

She began the week well against overwhelmed Singapore rookie Jelena Ostapenko. But then, it unraveled with a desultory loss to Karolina Pliskova. The defeat at the hands of Williams was a bruising one. Still, it was a straight-sets loss.

The Spaniard has the mien and posture of a champion. But there’s something missing. It seemed as though she might be the one to come through and take a firm grasp on the top spot, in this window of opportunity caused by the absence of so many champions. But it didn’t happen. It’s an ongoing mystery.

[3] Karolina Pliskova
Grade: B

With one-week coach Rennae Stubbs on board, the on-court coaching consults definitely took an uptick – especially for non-Czech speakers. Pliskova had already co-opted Barbora Strycova coach Tomas Krupa for 2018, so it can go no further. But hopefully some of the other players in Singapore will give it some consideration, because Stubbs, a great athlete who mastered the entire court during her career, has something to offer.

Pliskova looked like a world-beater against a rusty Williams in her first round. In her second, against Muguruza, she looked great again. But then she was crushed by Ostapenko in what essentially was a meaningless match (beyond the money and ranking points). At 25, with plenty of experience behind her and in her second tour of Singapore, Pliskova definitely should have handled that “dead rubber” match with more aplomb. 

[4] Elina Svitolina
Grade: C

Svitolina gets some slack because it was her first appearance at the Tour Finals. The players have to arrive early, do a lot of media and promotion. The entire routine of a tournament is completely turned upside down. The week before the matches actually begin must feel endless.

She was thrashed by Wozniacki in her first match. But she fought valiantly and played some very good tennis in her marathon loss to Garcia in her second match – arguably the match of the tournament. 

But it was clear at that point that she’d had enough. Faced with the possibility that she wasn’t yet out of contention for the weekend after that match, her attitude and words suggested she’d just as soon not even entertain that notion. That’s not what you want to hear from one of the eight best players in the world.

[5] Venus Williams
Grade: A+

In the absence of her sister Serena, you wonder how different this season would have looked without Williams’ throwback effort.

She created the spark in Singapore that was missing with the rest of the field (And that, despite a desultory and somewhat disrespectful effort in her press conferences; those on hand were only doing their jobs, and had travelled a long way to do them).

For the 37-year-old to win the whole thing would have been a storybook ending. It couldn’t quite happen. But in the end, she wasn’t the best player on the week. So it was fitting.

[6] Caroline Wozniacki
Grade: A+

Wozniacki won the biggest title of her career in Singapore. And it was a perfect marriage of surface and playing style.

The commentators were gushing with praise about how she was playing her best tennis ever. But if they paid more attention to her on a day-to-day basis, they might revise that. The Dane has been playing excellent tennis all year. If she fell a little short in most of her tournament finals, she nonetheless made eight of them this season. And she improved her ranking from No. 19 at the start of 2017 to No. 3 at the end.

The muddy court was ideal for arguably the best defensive player in the game. But it was her veteran’s ability to adjust her tactics to take best advantage of it that won her the title. Wozniacki took advantage of the opportunities that did present themselves in points, and added a little more when she needed to.

[7] Jelena Ostapenko
Grade: C

Of all the players in Singapore, Ostapenko’s 2018 season is going to be the most fascinating.

Her win at the French Open, while well-deserved, was aided by the inability of some of her colleagues to seize their moment. With her inexperience, and insouciance, she had no such baggage and was the last one left standing.

But even on the Singapore court, the weakness of her serve cost her. When Williams pounced on her second delivery with impunity later in their round-robin match, the carefree ability to hit winners took a hit. And the surface hurt her in the same way it helped Wozniacki; the winners were harder to come by. And when a player used to hitting those winners isn’t getting them, they try to add even more. And that led to errors.

Only in her final match did Ostapenko exhibit that insouciance again. But there was nothing at stake for her; she was going home regardless. That was telling. Again, as with Svitolina, it was her first trip.

As well, coach Anabel Medina Garrigues wasn’t there, having left to take the Fed Cup captaincy in Spain. A calming influence, Medina Garrigues can take some credit for that French Open victory. The next coach is going to have a tough act to follow.

[8] Caroline Garcia
Grade: A

The last to qualify for Singapore by virtue of back-to-back wins at big events in Wuhan and Beijing (and an injury to main competitor Johanna Konta), the WTA Tour Finals were a coming-out party.

Of all the Singapore rookies, she was the only one who clearly lived the experience to the fullest – win or lose.

Smiling, talkative, a battler on the court, perhaps the time is now for the French player of whom so much has been expected. She let her game flow for much of the week, and it was a beautiful thing.

Given how much tennis Garcia had played in the late stages to get there, her resistance through all those hours on the court was impressive. The three best matches of the week all had her on one side of the court.

On her fourth try, Halep becomes No. 1

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Simona Halep would have been forgiven if her reaction after beating Jelena Ostapenko Saturday in Beijing were one of relief.

Instead, it was pure joy.

Okay, maybe there was a little relief mixed in there somewhere.

The momentous victory meant that on Monday, the 26-year-old Romanian officially will become the No. 1 ranked player on the WTA Tour, for the first time in her career.

She will be the first Romanian, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour, to rise to the top spot. She also will be the fourth in less than six months. Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza have all owned the top spot since March.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaBIVVpHjq6j3tSyxwTE-8Q

Halep, like Pliskova (and Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic before them), ascended to the top spot before winning her first major title.

A bumpy road straightens out in Beijing

For Halep, older than all but Kerber, it was a long time coming.

Three times over the last four months, Halep was one victory away from claiming the top spot. The first three opportunities – in the French Open final against Ostapenko, at Wimbledon, and in Cincinnati – hadn’t gone well.

This time, she somehow put aside the accumulated pressure, the nerves, and the failures. She went to the line, and served it out as though it were the first set in her first-round match.

Even if she admitted her legs were shaking before that last point.

“I still say the toughest moment on court was the French Open final. It was the first opportunity to be No.1 and to win the first Grand Slam. I was devastated after that match. Then I just kept working. I said it’s going to happen one day, I just have to get on court and work harder, which I did,” Halep said afterwards, on a podcast on the WTA Tour website. “Darren (coach Darren Cahill) always told me that if you keep working you can do it. So today I did it after so many tough moments.”

That Halep is a good enough player and athlete to become No. 1 – especially in this era, when that top sport is so very much up for grabs – was rarely in question.

In a year of up-and-down results, of players reaching great heights only to stumble a few steps down the hill the following week, she was as capable as anyone.

But for her, compared to some, all the cylinders need to fire.

Halep
Coach Anabel Medina Garrigues came out when Ostapenko was down a break in the second set, remind her of Halep’s “situation” and telling her to stay with her. She won eight straight points after that. But Halep was able to kill the momentum and go on to victory. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

You just had to look over to the other side of the net Saturday to see Ostapenko. The 20-year-old from Latvia rode an insouciant confidence and the resultant ability to hit screaming winners to a French Open title.

That title came, as it happens, against the more well-rounded and experienced Halep.

For Ostapenko, the challenge will come when that confidence isn’t where it is now, and when opponents begin to figure out how to exploit the weaknesses in her game.

At times, Halep her own worst enemy

For Halep, the challenge so often has been to overcome herself.

Her humanizing self-doubt, a combination of cultural and personal, has meant that “her day”, as she referred to it on court Saturday, has only come at age 26.

“First place is the mental strength. The game I always had. I was there close many times, 2014 in Singapore. But the mental part I was not very close. This year for sure is the best way that I’ve been on court. The attitude now I’m happy about it. I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said on the WTA podcast. “I could not control my nerves, I could not control myself. And I was talking too bad to myself. I don’t deserve that because I’m working hard and I just have to appreciate myself more.”

It took a few turning points.

The first may well have come when a frustrated Cahill briefly said goodbye after Miami.

The affable Aussie, who has coached a youngster (Lleyton Hewitt) and an oldster (Andre Agassi) to No. 1, had reaching a breaking point.

After the French Open, Halep said, she had a psychologist who made a difference. There also was another man, a Romanian, with whom she worked at home.

“I really want to thank them because they showed me what I need to improve and what I have to change to be better on court, which I did it and credit to them, she said.

And then, there was the match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open – a very tough first-round draw for both, and a win for Sharapova.

“After the match, I talked to Darren and he told me my serve was s**t and that’s why I lost the match. So I said okay, if that’s the only one thing I can improve to beat her, then I work for it,” she told the WTA

Beefed up serve, lessons learned

Halep said she’s been out on the court hitting serves an hour a day. And the improved velocity this week in Beijing is the reward for all that work.

She crushed Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in the third round.

But despite all the fuss made about it – one comparison was made to Rafael Nadal’s serving velocity when he won the US Open in 2010 –the serve wasn’t new territory.

We can recall a few years ago, when she first got on the top-player radar in 2014, that her serving velocity easily got up to the 105-107 mph range.

It was a matter of getting back to it, with the increased experience to be able to keep the velocity up without sacrificing location and consistency.

Back then, Halep already was a master at changing the direction of a hard-hit ball – taking a cross-court shot down the line with her backhand, more specifically.

Before that final game, Halep looked slightly nauseous. It’s hard to even fathom the thoughts that were rushing through her head.

Halep
Halep looked slightly nauseous before she went out to serve for the match and the No. 1 ranking. But she did it with aplomb. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

But in those final points against Ostapenko, she showed all of those skills. She sent her younger scrambling from corner to corner until the Latvian was in positions from where it was impossible to pull the trigger. She hit big serves out wide to take control of the points. With one final forehand down the line, and a leap in the air, she had done it.

WTA on-court celebrations

The WTA Tour made a big to-do about the accomplishment immediately after the match.

They had CEO Steve Simon and president Mickey Lawler and all the tournament officials ready to trot out on the court for a photo opportunity. They had a beautiful No. 1 made of flowers ready – a tribute Halep hugged as if she didn’t want to let it go. They had the tribute video all prepared for the giant screens.

Halep
The various suits came out for a photo op with the new No. 1 after the win. A nice touch would have been to add the members of Halep’s team on hand. (Screenshot: WTA.TV)

There was an element of potential jinx to all of that advance preparation. You wonder if Halep saw the WTA executives hanging around and knew exactly what they were there for.

But it was a rare moment when an accomplishment could be immediately and publicly celebrated.

First true No. 1 celebration of 2017

The other occasions over the last year when a player became No. 1 weren’t nearly as neat and tidy, tailor-made for an instant tribute.

Garbiñe Muguruza, who was supplanted with the Halep victory, ascended to the No. 1 spot after her fourth-round exit from the US Open when Karolina Pliskova failed to defend her finalist points from the previous year with a loss in the quarterfinals a few days later.

Pliskova became No. 1 on the second Tuesday at Wimbledon when Johanna Konta defeated Halep in the quarterfinals. Pliskova had gone out in the second round.

Angelique Kerber became No. 1 again last March when Serena Williams withdrew from Indian Wells and Miami, citing “bad knees that didn’t allow her to train.” Of course, it turns out there was a much better reason.

A year ago at the US Open, Kerber became No. 1 for the first time after Pliskova defeated Williams in the semifinal – before Kerber even took to the court for her own.

This time, it all came together as one.

One more step for Halep

But there’s no time to celebrate. Halep still has a job to do.

She will meet an in-form Caroline Garcia in the Beijing final Sunday to win her fourth Premier Mandatory-level title.

In the absence so far of a Grand Slam title on her resumé, Premier Mandatory titles are Halep’s biggest efforts to date.

On the other side of the net, another milestone is in the works.

Garcia, whose season began with some Fed Cup drama and more back woes, has been surging.

She won Wuhan (a Premier 5 event) last week. And she was able to keep the momentum going and the energy up during a grueling week in Beijing.

On the WTA Tour this year, that has been a rare ironwoman streak. That it comes so late in the season is even more impressive.

Garcia survived a three-hour, 21-minute marathon against Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals Friday and backed it up with a straight-sets win over Petra Kvitova in Saturday’s semifinal.

Sunday will be Garcia’s fifth straight day on the courts. But the end goal is within reach: a win would put the Frenchwoman into position to earn the final singles qualifying spot in Singapore for the first time in her career.

(All screenshots from WTA.TV)

US Open Day 4 – What to watch

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NEW YORK – A marathon, 87-match singles spree caught up on Tuesday’s rainout, so the US Open is back to normal. At least for a few days.

And on Day 4, it’s Rafa and Roger time, as both play their second-round matches.

Whether they’ll rotate day and night session on Arthur Ashe for as long as both are in the tournament is too soon to predict.

But Federer has the late-afternoon slot against Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny. And Nadal has the late-night session against New York-born Japanese player Taro Daniel.

Neither figures to struggle. But you never know.

The men’s and women’s doubles, as well as the mixed doubles, also get under way today. The doubles might have begun Wednesday but for the catchup on the singles side. So the schedule is full.

Some of the players who playd their first rounds Wednesday will have to play again today. On the men’s side, with the best-of-five, that’s more of a factor.

Among those players are Juan Martin del Potro, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov and Gaël Monfils.

Women’s Matches to Watch

[12] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) vs. Sorana Cirstea (ROU)

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Ostapenko has generally been fairly quiet out there since her surprise win at the French Open. Although she did have a decent run at Wimbledon. But her North American summer hasn’t amounted to much.

Cirstea should not be an unsurmountable obstacle. But you never know. On the plus side, upsets have meant that there isn’t a single seeded player potentially in Ostapenko’s way until the quarterfinals. So watch out.

Cirstea crushed qualifier Lesley Kerkhove in the first round, despite a rather comprehensive (and unusual) tape job on her right arm in practice leading up to it.

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Yanina Wickmayer (BEL) vs. [Q] Kaia Kanepi (EST)

This is a matchup between two former top-15 players, who have fallen on more difficult times.

The 27-year-old Wickmayer, currently at No. 129, was No. 12 in the world when she was 20. Kanepi, who has struggled with Guillain-Barré syndrome and mononucleosis the last few years, was ranked No. 15 just five years ago, after a (relatively) late surge up the rankings.

She’s currently at No. 419. And she had to use a protected ranking just to get into the qualifying.

It’s a great opportunity for both.

Daria Kasatkina (RUS) vs. Christina Mchale (USA)

Kasatkina, still 19, had a great run this past April in winning the Har-Tru event in Charleston. But since then, she has struggled, no doubt in part because of an ankle injury. She lost first round in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome (there can always be a hangover exhaustion effect after a young player does such a big thing, and hers lasted the clay-court tuneup season). 

She didn’t play between the French Open and Wimbledon, and hasn’t won back-to-back matches since.

As for McHale, she’s 25 now. And it’s been five years since she broke into the top 25 right around this time. She’s ranked No. 63 and it might be time for a good result, so close to where she grew up.

Men’s Matches to Watch

[6] Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs. [WC] Taylor Fritz (USA)

The new father has his entire extended family with him in New York, and the group effort was effective in a comprehensive first-round win over veteran Marcos Baghdatis.

Thiem is a different customer. And though he’s not renowned for his hard-court efforts, he had no trouble at all in dismissing another wid card, Aussie Alex de Minaur, over two days to reach the second round.

[31] Feliciano Lopez (ESP) vs. Fernando Verdasco (ESP)

Former doubles partners, friends and longtime foes, the two veteran Spaniards meet again on, as it happens, Court 13.

Both lefties, they go at it in completely different ways as Verdasco is a fairly stubborn baseliner, while Lopez is much more of an all-court attacker in a very non-Spanish way. 

Surprisingly, they’ve only played eight times – and never at a Grand Slam. And only once since 2013. There’s no pattern from their meetings as both have beaten each other on the various surfaces. 

Superficially, this is also a highly attractive matchup. But you didn’t read that here.

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[7] Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs. Andrey Rublev (RUS)

Rublev is one of the less-heralded young guns. But he’s on his way just the same. 

He’s left to carry the torch for the 4 Slam tennis academy as his countryman and training partner Karen Khachanov was upset in the first round. And he’ll bring plenty of fire to this match against Dimitrov.

If Dimitrov were in the bottom half of the draw and not the top, you’d give him a ghost of a chance on a deep run in this tournament. As it is, most likely will make his seeding and get to the quarterfinals. But he has to get through Rublev first. And that’s easier said than done.

The Women’s quarterfinals – what they said

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WIMBLEDON – With the help of the Centre Court roof, all four women’s quarterfinals were completed Tuesday.

One was played outdoors on No. 1 Court. Two were played under the roof on Centre Court (one ending with the scream of an overeager British fan).

And the last one began on No. 1 Court, and was completed three hours later under the roof.

The two women’s singles semi-finals, to be played Thursday, are set.

No. 6 Johanna Konta of Great Britain is the highest seed remaining. She will play No. 10 Venus Williams.

quarterfinals

The other semifinal will feature 2015 finalist Garbiñe Muguruza, seeded No. 14 against the fairy tale of this fortnight, Slovakia’s unseeded Magdalena Rybarikova.

Here is what they said.

[6] Johanna Konta (GBR) def. [2] Simona Halep (ROU) 67 (2) 76 (5) 64

Konta: “I guess to be in the semifinals of my home Slam, and to do that in front of a full Centre Court, I mean, it’s pretty, pretty special. I think the level of tennis that both of us played today, it was just a tremendous match. … I feel very happy with how I was able to maintain my level throughout the whole match, and really just tried to stick very closely to how I felt I wanted to play out there, and did that kind of through the thick and thin.”

Halep: “I think was a great tennis. Both of us played a good level. I was very close, again. In the tiebreak maybe I could serve better and stronger a little bit. Then in the third set, the serve game that I lost was a little bit tough to still believe that I can break her because she was serving pretty well. … I think everything was okay. Many positives from this match. And she played really well, so she deserves to win.”

[10] Venus Williams (USA) def. [13] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT)

quarterfinals

Williams:  “I know she had to be feeling confident. She played a great match. Not a lot of errors. I never played her. Watched her. Didn’t really know what to expect. The grass, of course, changes the game. So just a lot of factors. I was really happy to come out on top. … ”

Ostapenko: “She was playing good today. She was serving well. I think I didn’t start the match very well. I was missing a little bit. But, yeah, she was serving really well. It was very tough to break. Because of that I had more pressure because I had to keep my serve. … It was also a good match today for me. … I had kind of, like, some pressure because, as I said, she was serving really well today. She started the match good. She made a lot of aces. But, yeah, I was not, like, feeling nervous. I just couldn’t really play my best today.”

[14] Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP) def. [7] Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS) 63 64

Muguruza: “I’m very happy and very pleased also with this match, because obviously Kuznetsova is a very tough opponent. We all know she has been and is a great player. I managed to play a good level during all the match. I earned the victory. … Before I was more emotional. You know, I was showing more emotions on the court. Now I’m trying to handle it better. I think that’s experience. Like I said before, the year I made final here, I felt like I was a completely different player. Now I maybe feel more solid mentally, going out there knowing what to do. I think it’s with experience and the years.”

Kuznetsova:  “I think in the start I had some options on her serve. I had love-30, 15-40, couldn’t turn it around. Then I just lost silly break, quite fast one, the first set. Then it was again everything even. Second break in the second set, it’s pretty simple. But these small moments, small chances really matters a lot. I think Garbiñe recovered very good today. She defend very good.”

[PR] Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK) def. [24] Coco Vandeweghe (USA) 63 63

Rybarikova: ” I just recently played ITFs in Surbiton. I was thinking that I was nervous more there than today. I have no idea how come I was that calm. Obviously I was nervous, but I was not like I would shake. Sometimes I can get really nervous and really tight. But this match I was quite positive. I was saying to myself, if I’m not going to make this serve, I still can break her because I had a lot of chances before so I can still make. If not, then I have third set. I was still up. So you still have to believe. Somehow I was not nervous. But I don’t understand it quite well, but that happened. … Always some player who surprise. Now I was lucky to be me. Yeah, I’m really grateful for that.”

Vandeweghe: “That’s why Grand Slams are the hardest tournaments. They’re over two weeks and you have to play well for two weeks. … I think (Rybarikova is) playing the best tennis of her career right now. She’s won a lot of tournaments. And she’s playing really well. She’s in the semifinals.”

Ostapenko unimpressed by Team Giorgi

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WIMBLEDON – Color French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko highly unamused with some of the antics from opponent Camila Giorgi’s support group, during in her third-round match Friday.

Ostapenko won the match 7-5, 7-5, coming back from 3-5 and 2-5 in those sets, to move into the second week. So that was the best revenge.

But the business coming from Team Camila? Well, she wasn’t too impressed.

“I mean, her box was quite loud. That was a little bit, like, disappointing because the court, the atmosphere here, I really like to play here. Everyone is, like, very nice,” she said. “My box, of course, was supporting me as well. But, yeah, couple of times they were, like, shouting before my serve. That’s why I got a bit disappointed.”

The behaviour would be kind of funny, except this is a group of professionals at a major event.

“I was just trying to focus on my game and to be on the court. It was just before my serve, somebody started to cough. I think it’s a little bit, how you say, unsportsmanlike. You’re in such a high level, and the tournament like Wimbledon, a Grand Slam, I think people have to understand where they are,” Ostapenko said.

The Latvian thought it might have come from father Sergio.

Giorgi
Papa Giorgi might be a little special. But he has a truly awesome mane of hair. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.life)

“I mean, the people who are in her team, they’re probably very close to tennis. They probably have to understand how to behave during the points or before the serve,” she said.

At 25, Giorgi is five years older than Ostapenko.

So you’d figure her people might have this down by now. 

I couldn’t, how to say, I couldn’t not hear it. It was just before my serve, after first serve and before second serve. That was pretty disappointing, yeah.” Ostapenko said.

Papa Giorgi, definitely unique

Sergio Giorgi is a fairly infamous figure around the tennis. And if the coughing was the thing Ostapenko noticed Friday, there’s usually more.

Here’s Papa during Giorgi’s battle against Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland earlier this year, in the first round of the Australian Open. Giorgi lost 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

No doubt his nose was really itchy, right?

Flashback – Ostapenko, 2014 French Open

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ROLAND GARROS – The thing about junior tennis is that even when you’re watching it attentively, you don’t always know what you’re seeing.

With rare exceptions, only hindsight can tell you that.

Players who impress at a young age often don’t pan out in the pros. Players who don’t do a whole lot in the juniors grow up, fill out and do great things.

So you watch. Do they have the makings of a pro game? Or do they have a game that’s been successful in the juniors and left alone, to their long-term detriment, precisely because of that success. 

Often – especially on the boys’ side, the game doesn’t transition. And by the time the players, coaches and federations figure that out, it’s often too late to make the big changes required.

Ostapenko, out in the first round

Which brings us to the French Open, three years ago, and a match between a pair of 1997s (i.e., 17 years old, or about to be) in the first round of the junior event.

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Françoise Abanda hadn’t played the juniors for awhile when she showed up at the 2014 French. She dispatched Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Françoise Abanda had been a hotshot junior. At 15, two years before, she’d been a couple of games away from making the junior Wimbledon final an all-Canadian affair with the three-years-older Genie Bouchard.

She ended up beaten by Elina Svitolina, who was 2 1/2 years older and had already won the junior French Open at age 15.

Fast forward to 2014, and Abanda was basically playing pro events and also had been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. She had played just one junior tournament in the previous year and a half.

Abanda was entered in the French Open in the hope that maybe she could snag a junior Slam title before she was done. And as the draw worked out, she faced a tough opponent in Ostapenko in the first round.

The Canadian was seeded No. 10. Ostapenko was unseeded.

They had played once before, in Montreal, when both were 15. Abanda had pulled through that one 1-6, 6-1, 6-1.

Ostapenko was a few weeks away from winning the Roehampton-Wimbledon junior double. She was still playing a lot of junior tournaments then. But the Latvian also had just spent five weeks playing a series of $10,000 ITF pro events in Santa Margherita Di Pula, Italy.

She won three of them, and went 20-2 during that stretch.

She might have been a bit weary.

Abanda won the match 7-6 (5), 6-4. At the time, there didn’t seem to be anything unduly remarkable about Ostapenko. 

I remember thinking I was not a big fan of the outfit, which a lot of the Nike juniors were wearing that year. And her eyesight wasn’t that great in terms of some of the ball marks she picked out for the umpire to look at (that hasn’t changed).

But that was about it.

At the end of 2014, the top 1997s in the WTA Tour rankings were as follows:

Belinda Bencic (No. 32)
Ana Konjuh (No. 93)
Françoise Abanda (No. 202)
Naomi Osaka (No. 260)
Jelena Ostapenko (No. 271)

All but Abanda, who qualified for the French Open main draw this year in her first tournament on the pro side, have made it to the top 50.

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Bencic has had the highest ranking of them all, peaking at No. 7 in February, 2016. But she’s out indefinitely after a series of injuries.

And yet, it was Ostapenko who snuck up on everyone and won the 2017 French Open.

The moral of the story might be this: don’t give into the hype. But don’t overlook anyone.

Because you never know.

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.

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.

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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.

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(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.”

Battle for WTA No. 1 is on

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ROLAND GARROS – It’s been a long time since a battle for No. 1 on the women’s circuit didn’t involve someone named Serena.

But at long last, in Williams’ absence, there are challengers to the spot that for a couple of years has belonged to the consistent Angelique Kerber.

It’s not that Kerber hasn’t fully deserved to be ranked No. 1. The computer doesn’t lie. But if Williams – inarguably the best female player on the planet – isn’t going to be there, there should at least be a knockdown, drag out battle to replace her.

So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s as though it took the pressure off for Williams to be around, because there was no downside to not being able to overtake her. But as Williams played very little in 2016, and even less in 2017, the opening has been there. 

Kerber has been the only one so far to step up and take it.

As of Thursday, though, the battle is on. If Karolina Pliskova defeats Simona Halep to reach her first French Open final, she will be the new No. 1 next Monday.

If Halep beats her, and goes on to win the title, she would become No. 1.

Kerber helped make all this possible by going down in the first round to Ekaterina Makarova in Paris. That, and other recent early exits, dropped her once unassailable points total to being within reach of the rest.

How will that No. 1 pressure affect this semi-final? We’ll soon find out.

The other women’s semifinal Thursday will see No. 30 seed Timea Bascinszky take on unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. That’s the birthday matchup; Bacsinszky turns 28 on the day, while Ostapenko turns 20.

“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, you have to be in the final to be No. 1. I was, like, there is no chance I make final here,” Pliskova said after her quarterfinal win over Caroline Garcia of France Wednesday.

Pliskova was not unaware of the stakes, though. She also was aware that the same prize is also at stake for her opponent.

“Now it’s close, but it’s close and it’s far, as well, because I’m playing against somebody who I would say one of the best girls on clay,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to get it for free, you know. She’s playing also for being world No. 1, what I know, I think.”

Rain can’t stop the June 8 women

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ROLAND GARROS – None of the women playing Tuesday for spots in the French Open semifinals were top-10 players or pre-tournament favourites.

But if all four were unexpectedly in the elite eight, there were plenty of contrasts in styles and personalities to make both two matches promising.

A rain delay of more than three hours a little more than halfway through pretty much dampened the drama. And as a dramatic device, the deluge and the long delay didn’t even come through to change one of the narratives into a miraculous comeback.

After resumption of play, they continued on much as they had just before the stoppage.

All of the rain did not, however, dampen the spirits of first-time French Open semifinalist Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

Ostapenko looked fearless in dispatching No. 11 seed Caroline Wozniacki, a player who has been No. 1 and knows what it’s like to play at this stage of a major.

The rains came with Ostapenko on a roll, up 5-2 in the second set after dropping the first. But it didn’t halt her momentum; her 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory was a victory of aggression over consistency. 

“Caroline was playing pretty well today. And at the beginning was really windy and was really tough for me to get my game, because I couldn’t expect where the ball was bouncing. She served pretty well, and then I just got my game back. Yeah, I felt quite confident,” Ostapenko said.

Six winners. That’s all.

Match statistics can be interpreted many ways. But the numbers on this one left no doubt as to Wozniacki didn’t do – even if doing it any other way would take her out of her comfort zone. Ostapenko had 38 winners and 50 unforced errors, but cleaned up those errors in the second half of the match.

“In the beginning of the match, yeah, first two sets really was extremely windy out there, which made it tricky and was hard to get a rhythm. But other than that, you know, you just have to try and stay focused and go for your targets, or at least that was my thinking,” Wozniacki said. “I guess she didn’t think so. She was going for her lines. In the first set, she was missing but then she started hitting it a few inches from the line the whole time.”

It was a tough matchup for Wozniacki, despite the difference in age and experience. The two have played twice on clay in the last two months (the first, in Charleston, was on the American version of the clay, Har-Tru). Ostapenko won both. And she hit bucketfuls of winners each time.

Wozniacki made 25 unforced errors – a fair amount for her. No doubt the windy conditions contributed. But she had just … six winners. Six.

In a nutshell, her experience worked against her this time, in a way. She played the conditions too much. She played it too safe because of the wind, and her opponent took it to her. 

Over on Court Philippe-Chatrier, the tournament’s favorite Frenchwoman looked poised to make her first French Open semi-final. But a tricky customer named Timea Bacsinszky had other ideas.

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Poor conditions conspire

On a day when Kristina Mladenovic needed to come out and play her best tennis, she played some pretty sub-par tennis. And 27-year-old opponent Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland did exactly what she had to do – flawlessly, fearlessly and effectively.

The two played in Fed Cup a couple of months ago, and Bacsinszky pulled it out 7-5 in the third set that time. The conditions were perfect, though – fast, indoors, more conducive to Mladenovic’s game.

This time, despite a few moments when it seemed Mladenovic might get on a run and look like the player who has so impressed during this clay-court season, the conditions very much favoured Bacsinszky.

You could see the disappointment on Mladenovic’s face, as she walked off the court and acknowledged basically no one. Head down, probably mad at herself for letting such a great opportunity slip by her. Maybe a little heartsick, too, at not playing the tennis she’s capable of on the biggest stage she’s got, even as she always prides herself on shining in those moments.

“I think Timea is way better than me on that kind of today’s conditions. You know, so the wind, of course, I couldn’t, like, serve my powerful serve. I’m, I think, a little bit more aggressive than her and couldn’t really put this game plan on today,” Mladenovic said. “I think she handled — like, her game style and stuff dealt way better than me today with these conditions, and that’s it.”

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Bacsinszky credited some practices outdoors in Biel, Switzerland recently, with the temperatures barely above freezing, as a help in dealing with the big chill that came over Roland Garros Tuesday. The wind? That’s another matter.

“I don’t like to play with the wind. I’m not sure if any other player likes it. But I just said, anyway, I have no choice, and I have no influence on that. I just better be friends with the wind today and with the rain delays, as well. So I just tried to take everything – I mean, it’s easy to say with a smile, but I just tried to take it as it was coming and not getting angry about anything,” she said. “Just really focusing on what I can do with the options I have with the weather today.

“How can I match the weather with my game plan today?”

It must be nice to have options in your game plan to adjust to the conditions. That’s not necessarily something a Mladenovic will ever have.

So her option was to attack it like Ostapenko, full-out going for it. She didn’t do it.

In some respects, Mladenovic tried to play it too safe. It other respects, her opponent sucked her into playing a more finesse type of game, with multiple drop-shot attempts that exposed her inner lack of confidence in her basic game, under the tough conditions.

But in the end, the player with more options took an option out on victory.

A numbers game – big time

The semi-final between Ostapenko and Bacsinszky will be a numerologist’s delight.

It will take place on June 8. That happens to be Ostapenko’s 20th birthday. It also happens to be Bacszinsky’s 28th birthday.

And then, there’s… this.