She’s the fifth WTA Tour player to hit the top spot this season after Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza.
With the top four separated by about 700 points, and with all the points on offer at the year-end championships in Singapore, there is every change the group may be shuffled a bit before the 2017 season is said and done.
She’s the first Romanian woman to hold the top spot, and the 25th in the history of the WTA Tour rankings.
In another milestone effort, France’s Caroline Garcia jumps into the top 10 for the first time in her career. And, according to many, it’s long overdue given her talent level.
Garcia put in yeoman’s work in winning the Premier 5 event in Wuhan two weeks ago, and backing it up with a win in the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing last week.
On the Upswing
Caroline Garcia (FRA): No. 15 —————> No. 9 (the best two weeks of her career, and a well-deserved jump into the top 10 for the first time)
There’s one spot left in the singles for Singapore. And it’s Caroline Garcia’s to win and Johanna Konta’s to lose. Garcia, due to play in Tianjin this week, begged off after her busy Asian swing. Konta, who pulled out of Hong Kong, has the Moscow Premier next week to try to nail it down.
The tournament has said it won’t give Garcia a wild card, preferring to dispense them to Russian players.
Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski and Chinese partner Yifan Xu, along with veteran duo Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany and Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic (who is 42!) qualify for Singapore.
There is spot left, which likely will go to Maria José Martínez Sánchez and Andreja Klepac.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
FLUSHING MEADOWS – When it was over, after two hours and 42 minutes, Maria Sharapova fell to the court in victory.
It was an reaction more appropriate for a Grand Slam final.
But this 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over world No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania came … in the first round, on opening night of the US Open.
The moment, of course, lost a little in that after Sharapova hit the deck, everyone had to wait for the Hawkeye challenge to ensure that the Russian, indeed, had won.
It was the first time Sharapova had played a match in a Grand Slam since the 2016 Australian Open, some 19 months ago. That was the tournament at which she tested positive for meldonium.
After serving a 15-month suspension, Sharapova was awash in wild cards from WTA Tour events eager to benefit from the most marketable athlete in the women’s game.
But the Slams weren’t quite so eager.
First Slam in 19 months
The French Open righteously insisted they would not give a player returning from a doping suspension a wild card.
Wimbledon never had to make the decision. Sharapova controlled that narrative as she has controlled much of the narrative through her suspension and comeback. She announced she would play the qualifying.
But the thigh injury she suffered a couple of months before in Rome still had not healed sufficiently. And Sharapova ended up skipping the grass-court season.
Now, in New York, the former champion and American resident did receive an invitation to the big dance.. And she returned in style.
“I just thought that this was another day, another opportunity, another match. But this was so much more, and I didn’t want to think about it,” Sharapova said during an on-court interview with an acquiescent ESPN. “You never know how you’re going to feel until you win that match point. But you know that everything you go through is worth it, just for this moment. You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work. And this is exactly why.”
Health a big question
There had been plenty of buzz prior to the match that Sharapova wasn’t tip-top physically. She has played just one tennis match since early May because of an assortment of physical niggles. A lot of it is a by-product of her now being 30 and having been out of competition for such an extended period.
Were they playing possum? Possibly. But not probably. If there’s anything most are unanimous about when describing the Russian, it’s that her competitive spirit is unquenchable. She’s done everything, made more money than she could ever spend. But that desire never seems to waver.
“When the draw came out, I knew what a difficult matchup this would be, how much excitement was behind this matchup and the hype. That all goes to the fact that we’ve just competed so well against each other in the past. Really produced some good tennis,” Sharapova said. “Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today. And I somehow did. I think that is what I’m most proud of.”
Sharapova said she almost didn’t make it to New York. She had an MRI when the forearm issue first surfaced, and another one a couple of weeks ago in Cincinnati. After that, she flew to New York to get another opinion on it.
Had it been a regular tournament, the decision might have been different. But this was New York. A Grand Slam. A lot of off-court business to take care of. a memoir coming out in a couple of weeks.
And prime time. Sharapova is now 18-0 in night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium in her career.
New Yorkers welcomed her
The crowd in New York was hugely welcoming. Was that surprising? Hard to tell. If you spent too much time on social media during the last year and a half – as many tennis fans do – you see how polarizing the doping suspension has made the former US Open champion.
Many fans – and players, and even people in the game – feel Sharapova has no business getting wild cards as she works her way back from the suspension. Clearly most of the 23,771 on the stadium court, who paid good money (or had their company or a client pay good money) to see her, felt differently.
Host broadcaster ESPN treated her as returning royalty. The crew – all female save for on-court interviewer Tom Rinaldi, praised her improved flexibility and intimated they’d never seen her play better. Which was going a little far.
And when Sharapova went up to the control desk, it was kisses and reverence and emotion.
It was a lot. And, as always, Sharapova directed the narrative. When Rinaldi even tried to bring up the past, Sharapova swiftly shot that down. And then … she giggled.
She deflected the question again in her press conference.
Team Sharapova emo
But however you feel about whether she should have been there, however you feel about the doping suspension, the reality is that Sharapova wasn’t able to ply the trade she’s passionate about for quite some time.
The emotions were real. The sight of tough-talking agent Max Eisenbud sobbing after Sharapova left the court, and her putting her arm around him, spoke to the loyalty Sharapova engenders in the people she has brought around her.
It was a primetime show the likes of which hasn’t often been seen in women’s tennis this season.
And it’s not that there haven’t been many incredible matches. There have been.
But Sharapova’s star power brings it to the next level.
And what of Halep, who two weeks ago was one win away from coming into the US Open as the top seed and the new world No. 1?
Another setback for Halep
It’s going to be serious reflection time the next two weeks as the rest of the women’s field vies for the big trophy.
She fought. Sharapova was up a set and 4-1, with a break point to go up 5-1 and serve for the match in the second set before Halep reeled off five straight games and pushed it to a decider.
“I didn’t think that I lost the match. I just kept fighting, playing. I feel that I started to play a little bit more relaxed after that score. Then I got the confidence back. Actually, I didn’t lose the confidence during the match because I felt that I was very close, also in the first set,” she said. “I mean, I cannot judge myself for not doing something, just the serve, because was a bad serve today. I didn’t have the timing, the feeling. I don’t know why. Maybe because was night. It’s always different. I didn’t practice night. But these are excuses.
“I just had to try something else, but I didn’t. So was my bad there,” she added.
Already this year, the 25-year-old Romanian has had two opportunities to reach the elusive No. 1 singles ranking on the WTA Tour. But she couldn’t get it done.
If she defeats Garbiñe Muguruza in the Cincinnati final, she’ll finally do it.
“It’s the third time. It is either lucky or is just an experience again. So we will see,” Halep said after defeating wild card Sloane Stephens in the semifinal Saturday.
At the French Open, just a few games away from defeating unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the final and taking over top spot, she faltered. At Wimbledon, she was just two points away against Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals. But she faltered again.
Surprisingly, Halep and Muguruza have not met in more than two years, since Stuttgart, on indoor clay in 2015.
“I want to win it. “So if it’s gonna be just to win a match and to get it, it’s going to be more special and nicer for me. Everyone can get to No. 1 now. The ranking is close. So depends on anyone,” she told the media in Cincinnati. “But I am so close. I really want it. So we will see.”
Fresh slate at the top
If Halep gets it done, it will complete an astonishing – and likely unprecedented – week in which every single one of the No. 1 rankings in tennis will change hands.
Rafael Nadal is assured to be the new No. 1 on the men’s singles side. Finland’s Henri Kontinen will be No. 1 in men’s doubles. And Lucie Safarova will be the new woman atop the women’s doubles ranking on Monday.
It certainly seems as though tennis karma is dictating that Halep join the club.
Nadal (last in 2014) and Kontinen (for many weeks this season) have been No. 1 before. For Safarova (and Halep) it will be the first time.
At the beginning of the week, there were five WTA Tour players with the potential to end up in the top spot, depending on results in Cincinnati.
But a lot of things had to fall into place. Most of the scenarios involved the current No. 1 Pliskova losing early; Halep was the most likely possibility, if Pliskova didn’t hold onto the spot. She basically had to go two rounds further than Pliskova.
The Czech righthander lost in the in the semis to Muguruza. So for Halep, that now means winning the tournament.
But if she doesn’t, she will find herself just five points behind Pliskova, in the No. 2 spot. If it doesn’t happen Sunday, it surely will happen at the US Open, right?
Halep has quarterfinalist points to defend (430) in New York. But Pliskova lost to Kerber in the final (1,300 points). And the other contenders will continue to have a say.
Kerber is dropping
Speaking of Kerber, who spent 14 weeks at No. 1 this year, she will fall all the way to No. 6 after the Cincinnati tournament. With those 2,000 points for winning the US Open hanging over her ranking, she may fall further.
This, it seems, is what parity looks like.
But for some reason, neither Halep nor Pliskova is getting the same kind of criticism that other former No. 1s – Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Amélie Mauresmo, to name three – received for acceding to the top spot without having a Grand Slam title on their resumé.
Rogers Cup No. 2 seed Simona Halep obviously appreciates all the support she gets from the Romanian fans.
Everywhere she goes, there seems to be large, vocal group of supporters.
Even Canadian Bianca Andreescu, whose parents are Romanian, who who made her WTA Tour main-draw debut at the Citi Open last week, got the spillover. She said she couldn’t believe how much Romanian she heard spoken in the crowd during her matches.
But while appreciative, Halep asked the fans to tone it down a bit after her 6-1, 6-0 victory over Barbora Strycova Thursday in Toronto.
“I want to thank them. And I think I can say – is not a bad thing – but I think that they have to be a little bit more fair play with the opponent, because today was a little bit too much in my opinion,” she said.
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.”
 Venus Williams (USA) def.  Jelena Ostapenko (LAT)
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.”
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.”
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.”
WIMBLEDON – When the women’s singles draw was made at Wimbledon last Friday, there were five women who theoretically could be ranked No. 1 on the WTA tour at the end of the fortnight.
Karolina Pliskova, wherever she is right now, is the last one standing.
The moment Great Britain’s Johanna Konta defeated Simona Halep in their quarterfinal Tuesday, the 25-year-old Czech became the 23rd woman to hold the No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour.
She will officially take over the crown – which has proven a rather weighty one in recent years when Serena Williams hasn’t been wearing it – on Monday.
If it seems as if Pliskova backed into it, perhaps she did. The storybook ending would be to win Wimbledon, and become No. 1. Instead, she was upset in the second round by Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.
A post shared by Karolina Pliskova (@karolinapliskova) on
But any time you accomplish something like that, the rest are just details.
Pliskova is the first Czech woman to be ranked No. 1. When Czech-born Martina Navratilova first got to the top of the rankings right around this time in 1978, she was already representing the U.S.
The accolade comes halfway through a season during which the only consistent thing on the WTA Tour was … inconsistency.
Amidst all that, Pliskova has had a very solid season. That’s evidenced by the fact that she’s currently atop the leaderboard in the race to the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore in October.
Over the last 52 weeks (which are the results on the computer at any one time that determine the current rankings), Pliskova has won four titles. She has made two Grand Slam semi-finals, and has nine victories over other top-10 players.
No. 1 without a major
The fact that she has made it without yet winning a major title has become, if not commonplace, no longer rare. Players like Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Amélie Mauresmo (who later erased that blemish on her resumé) have done it before her.
When the draw came out, Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki both had a slight shot at being No. 1 at the end of Wimbledon.
But they would have had to win their first major title, for one thing.
Once Pliskova won the warmup tournament in Eastbourne the day after the Wimbledon draw, those two were eliminated from contention.
Kerber had a shot at staying No. 1. But she had to reach the Wimbledon final. She lost a tough one to Garbiñe Muguruza on Manic Monday.
And then, there were two.
Halep’s destiny in her own hands
Halep has Wimbledon quarterfinal ranking points as well as the points she won from winning Bucharest right after Wimbledon a year ago dropping off the computer on Monday. Still, she needed “only” to reach the semi-finals here to finally get to No. 1. And she gave it everything she had, but went down to Konta Tuesday evening.
It’s the second consecutive top-spot disappointment for Halep. At the French Open, she would have become No. 1 had she defeated Jelena Ostapenko and won the title.
That would have been the perfect storybook ending – winning your first major title, and earning the No. 1 spot at the same time.
Halep was two points from beating Konta and finally doing it Tuesday. It wouldn’t have mattered if she got no further in the tournament; she would have left London with the No. 1 ranking.
The Romanian must be questioning a whole lot of things, at the moment.
It seems the weight of trying to grab that crown might be almost as significant as wearing it.
The dethroned Kerber has spent a total of 34 weeks at No. 1, not all of them consecutive. That’s the 12th-most of the 23 No. 1s in history.
It’s more than Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams combined, as amazing as that may seem. And she may well be back before too long to add to it.
WIMBLEDON – Unlike the men on the ATP Tour, the top women don’t practice together nearly as much as they could – or should.
Why? Well, it’s partly a matter of non-necessity. There aren’t too many coaches on the men’s side who are still young and spry enough to practice with their players with any degree of usefulness. So the men need each other more.
Carlos Moyá, who coached Milos Raonic last year and now is with Rafael Nadal, is one obvious exception.
The number of former players of varying abilities in their 30s and 40s coaching female players greatly outdistances their counterparts on the men’s side.
So the top women most often choose to hit with the coaches, or with male hitting partners.
It’s lower maintenance. And they can spend all of the practice time working on the things they want to work on, without having to be concerned with whether the other player also is getting to work on what she needs to address.
If they can find guys who can hit flatter and mimic the groundstrokes in the women’s game, they’re in good shape. Often, though, especially with the serve, it’s hard for the men to duplicate.
Two top-10 women hit up
So when two top players do take the court together, and seem to have a really fun time while they do it, it’s a rare treat.
That was the case when Simona Halep and Svetlana Kuznetsova had their “championship hit” at Wimbledon, just before the tournament began.
Here’s what it looked like. The smiles are priceless.
It’s a tricky business, as it so often is with the women. There are some players (no, no names) who tend to treat a rival player as little more than a hitting partner on the practice court. The 411 on those players tends to get around pretty quickly.
Sometimes they’ll keep them waiting while they endlessly talk to their coaches. Or they won’t feed the ball as cooperatively as they should.
Most often, you’ll see the women sit on completely separate benches and not address a word in each other’s direction during a one-hour practice. (It happens on the men’s side, too, but not nearly as often).
That’s not all of them, of course. Some of the women are actually friends “in real life”. And some are friendly enough that they’ll at least pull their chairs together and chat during water breaks.
But it’s such a different world from the men. And not always in a good way.
Female cooperation not encouraged
When you see Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka practicing, or Rafael Nadal and Fabio Fognini, or Federer and young Alexander Zverev, it’s a huge treat for the fans who have a chance to watch.
How much would fans enjoy Serena and Karolina Pliskova practicing together? Or Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. Or Angelique Kerber and Jelena Ostapenko, say.
It’s a hard trend to go buck, though, especially as it seems to be institutional. And, on some levels, it’s often encouraged by some coaches who aren’t necessarily top-level technical instructors. Those coaches want to ensure they remain essential to the players they’re working with. Oh, and the parents often have a say, as well.
Even within a country, there’s often competition to be that nation’s No. 1. And that leads to an atmosphere where the players don’t want to give anything away – even to their countrywomen.
It’s the wrong approach, of course. If your mindset is to be the best in your country, you’re not getting the bigger picture. And if there are only a few WTA-level players in a country, they could help each other get better to take on the world – not just each other.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”