Jelena Ostapenko has made the most of her opportunities to become this year’s French Open Queen of Clay and she did it with a blazing array of shots to completely overwhelm the title favourite Simona Halep playing her second final at Roland Garros.
I mean I can't believe I'm champion at 20. I knew that Gustavo Kuerten won his first Roland Garros the day I was born, I have no words. Jelena Ostapenko
The story behind the youngster’s achievement is a fairy tale. The Latvian, who had only celebrated her 20th birthday two days earlier by blasting past Timea Bacsinszky, has never won a title on the WTA Tour and in the last few years she has played the grand slams, hasn’t ever reached the second week.
Unseeded she came through striking a remarkable 245 winners in her run into the championships match to which she added another 54 in the final as she fought back from a nervy start to defeat the third seeded and more experienced Romanian, 4-6 6-4 6-3 to become her country’s first grand slam winner.
She is the first unseeded player to win the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy since 1993 and she has emulated the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten’s 1997 victory which he achieved on the day Ostapenko was born. In addition, she is now the youngest first-time female grand slam champion since Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova won the 2004 U.S. Open and the first woman to win the title from a set down since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
World ranked 47 at the start of the fortnight, Ostapenko was never going to change her approach of fearless hitting which can lead to a great many unforced errors. On this occasion she matched her winners at 54, but it is that- never-say-die attitude which has attracted the public and with her wide grin and smile, countless fans.
The final will be seen as a classic between an aggressive player and a player renown for her defensive play and on clay, it was more than likely that defensive player would wear out the more aggressive protagonist. But not so.
Halep had her chances as she led by a set and break but failed to convert two break points for a 4-1 lead to set her on the way to her first major triumph. Ostapenko, as is her way, didn’t hold back to hold and from that moment, the pendulum started to swing her way.
Halep simply buckled under the weight of the shots which, especially the forehand which had been measured on average to be faster than Andy Murray. Her favourite shot was down the line off both wings and as Halep commented later, she felt like a spectator.
Halep, who had she been able to secure victory would have risen to the top of the women’s rankings and emulated her manager Virginia Ruzici’s 1978 Roland Garros win, didn’t give up and even led 3-1 in the decider only to be broken, setting Ostapenko on a charge to the winning post by taking the next five consecutive games clinching a well-deserved victory with another thumping backhand.
“I felt like a spectator out there at times,” Halep commented later. “She only has one game, either I can’t touch it or it flies one metre out.”
Ostapenko, who had the Parisian crowd roaring her on, raised her arms in triumph and disbelief. There was also disbelief amongst those who felt that the occasion would prove too difficult for her to deal with, including the seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert. “We didn’t have the big names here this year but I have to say a star is born,” Evert, working as pundit for broadcaster Eurosport commented.
Her reward included a cheque for £1.85 million and a huge ranking boost elevating her to around the 12 mark which should be confirmed on Monday.
“I mean I can’t believe I’m champion at 20,” said Ostapenko, “I knew that Gustavo Kuerten won his first Roland Garros the day I was born, I have no words.”
“There were a couple of games when everything went my way and I was ready to fight for every point, ” she added.
Many felt that without the presence, for various reasons, of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, this year’s Women’s French Open would be diminished but Ostapenko has proved them wrong. She has brought a new freshness to the game and provided she can harness her power, improve her serve (especially her second delivery) she is set to become a superstar. The only fear is that first time winners at Roland Garros seem to fall off over the following months but hopefully, her youthful fervour will help her avoid following the path of Ana Ivanovic and last year’s champion, Garbine Muguruza.
Earlier in the day, Ryan Harrison and Michael Venus overcame fellow surprise finalists Santiago Gonzalez and Donald Young to win the French Open men’s doubles title 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-3 in what was the first Roland Garros men’s doubles final to feature two unseeded pairings since 1993.
The victory for Venus 29, means he has earnt New Zealand their first grand slam title in 38 years.