French Open 2017: Jelena Ostapenko scripts unlikely Grand Slam victory with fearless, frenetic energy

Looking ahead to the ladies French Open final, former champion Chris Evert had said: “Not many players win their first final in a Grand Slam. I would be surprised if she came out and hit winners all over the court like she has been.”

Stage fright is a very real prospect for a first-time finalist. But Jelena Ostapenko, a trained ballroom dancer, continued to defy norms. She fired 54 winners to script a stunning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over World No 3 Simona Halep. Ostapenko’s beaming smile as she raised the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen was the only thing sunnier than her strokes all fortnight.

Jelena Ostapenko (R) with Simona Halep. AFP

Jelena Ostapenko (R) with Simona Halep. AFP

Rather than being fazed, Ostapenko was enjoying being front and centre at one of the biggest tournaments in tennis. When serving at 5-4, Ostapenko smiled as the French crowd rose in a Mexican wave. She waited till they finally settled down, stepped in and coolly served out the set.

“All the credit for what you have done... It's an amazing thing,” Halep said in a gracious speech. “Enjoy it, be happy and keep it going because you are like a kid.”

Ostapenko had entered the French Open as a talented teenager; she left it as a young woman and a Grand Slam champion.

The unlikeliest Grand Slam win in recent times was, of course, defined by a few astonishing numbers and facts. Ranked 47 in the world, she became the first unseeded women’s player in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam and the first Latvian ever to claim a Major. At the start of the tournament, she was given 100-1 odds of winning the title. Ostapenko, a former Wimbledon girls’ champion, was yet to win a WTA tour title. But the oddest bit of cosmic connection was that Ostapenko had become the first player since Gustavo Kuerten to claim the French Open as their maiden title; and Kuerten won the French Open on June 8, 1997, the day the Latvian was born.

She is every bit a charming champion that Guga was. But it was more than just stars aligning for Ostapenko at this French Open.

Her fearless, frenetic energy gripped the tennis world. Despite having only recently turned 20, or perhaps because of it, she brimmed with confidence and performed with conviction. Through the seven rounds of the tournament, she hit an incredible 299 winners with youthful abandon. Her opponent in the final, Halep, finished with a tally of 128. But Halep is mainly a defensive player, and does a great job of it, but she didn’t quite have the luxury of being unscarred by failure.

The diminutive Romanian was some sort of favourite going into the tournament, which was bereft of former Slam champions like Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. And she had come back from the brink against Elena Svitolina in the quarter-final, and survived an onslaught from Karolina Pliskova in the semis to enter her second Major final. A French Open finalist in 2014, Halep, 25, knew the course better than most. In the run-up to Paris, she had won the title in Madrid, made the finals in Rome and the semi-finals in Stuttgart. It was possibly her best chance to win a Grand Slam.

And she was three games away from it, with Ostapenko spraying the ball outside the lines. Both the women were finding it difficult to hold serve: Ostapenko won eight of 19 break points in the match while Halep took 6 of 16.

Halep had held on to a tight first set and raced away to a 3-0 lead in the second. With the Romanian going into brick-wall mode, Ostapenko had already made 30 unforced errors by the middle of the second set. But as her record in the past two weeks suggested, she produced some of her best tennis when cornered.

The Latvian had come back from a set down against Samantha Stosur and then against former World No 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round and quarter-finals respectively. But her natural ball-striking ability means she can always dictate play.

After telling herself to calm down on multiple occasions, Ostapenko started finding her range in the second set. She closed down the lead after breaking Halep’s serve in the fifth game and then clawed back after being 15-40 down in the sixth. Ostapenko won the game with a brilliant running forehand winner even though Halep had found an incredible angle on her forehand cross court. The Latvian also came back from a 1-3 deficit in the third set to power on to victory.

“I still can't believe I won,” Ostapenko said in the post-match interview at Court Philippe Chatrier. “It was always my dream, when I was a child I was watching players here. I'm just so happy. I've just enjoyed it so much. I have no words.”

On the day, though, she had all the shots.

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 15:22 PM

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