French Open 2017: Jelena Ostapenko’s bold, slam-bang play has made her story of the tournament

It had to be the forehand. Jelena Ostapenko had used it to punishing effect to make the semi-finals at the French Open. Here it was again, in full glory, on match point. The Latvian slapped one inside-out, and though Timea Bacsinszky had defended valiantly all afternoon, she could not chase this one down, didn’t even begin to.

It’s the shot that has been in as much news as its owner. In a statistic comparing the top five average forehand speeds at this year’s Roland Garros, men and women included, Ostapenko’s has made a surprise entrance at No 4. Hit at an average speed of 76mph, it is better than Andy Murray’s at 73mph and only a tad slower than Rafael Nadal’s at 79mph.

Jelena Ostapenko reacts during the match against Timea Bacsinszkyon Thursday. AP

Jelena Ostapenko reacts during the match against Timea Bacsinszkyon Thursday. AP

She’s not one to hold back. The Latvian has bludgeoned past opponents, bigger names with more experience, to carve out a piece of history for herself on the terre battue. Ostapenko, ranked 47 in the world, had on Tuesday become the youngest player, since Ana Ivanovic in 2007, to enter the semi-final of the French Open.

On Thursday, with her 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3 victory over Bacsinszky she became the first unseeded player since Mimi Jausovec in 1983 to make it to the French Open final. She is also the first Latvian player to advance to a Grand Slam final.

Thursday was, of course, Ostapenko and Bacsinszky’s joint birthday blast. And while Ostapenko performed with an abandon of a person bidding farewell to their teenage; Bacsinszky had the composure and restraint of someone who turned 28. The Swiss was hoping to draw onto her experience to stop Ostapenko’s outrageous run. After all, it was only three years ago that the Latvian had won the girls’ title at Wimbledon.

Tennis wasn’t a playground for teenagers anymore. The game has aged, especially on the men’s side. When the French Open began, the top five men were all over 30. Even though the apprenticeship on the women’s side is not quite as long and brutal, their game has also become more physical, making it harder for younger players to come through. At the Australian Open this year, three of the women’s semi-finalists were 34 and above.

Ostanpenko makes the game younger. On the day she turned 20, Ostapenko put on a fearless show of shot-making. She goes for broke on almost every shot. That’s what had brought her to the final four; she stuck to her guns. Ostapenko blazed 50 winners past Bacsinszky; not an easy thing to do given the Swiss miss’ admirable defence.

When the Latvian made a clutch of errors in the second set to lose four games in a row, she was petulant. She screwed her face as if someone had blown on her birthday candles, and threw the ball down. But in the third set, she found her range again and, incredibly, powered into the finals. The crowd at Philippe Chatrier Court, awestruck by her shot-making, sung ‘Happy Birthday’ for her after the match.

“I'm really happy to be in the final, especially on my birthday. I think it's a nice gift!” said Ostapenko. “I was always playing aggressive and trying to hit the ball when I have the chance. It probably helped me to win today.”

Even though this year’s women’s draw was deemed as one of the most open, no one really saw Ostapenko coming. Having turned pro in 2012, Ostapenko is yet to win a WTA title. The player, who was earlier coached by her mother, only joined forces with Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues at the start of the clay-court season. Sure, Garrigues is a clay specialist, having won 10 of her 11 singles titles and 16 of her 28 doubles title on the red dirt. And she seems to have channelled her expertise to Ostapenko, who till recently believed that clay wasn’t her favourite surface.

She had begun the clay season in Charleston and made it all the way to the final. Ostapenko also went as far as the semi-final in Prague and won three matches each at the WTA events in Stuttgart and Rome, though through qualifying. It was enough match time for her to find her feet, and shots, on clay.

The first pointers to her dream run at Roland Garros lay in her straight sets win over Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig. In her quick 6-3, 6-2 win over Puig, which lasted just an hour and nine minutes, she hit 26 winners. But it was her come-from-behind wins over Samantha Stosur (fourth round) and former World No 1 Caroline Wozniacki (quarter-final) that really brought her into sharp focus. She hits the ball with pure timing and rare conviction, and is perpetually in the slam-bang mode.

Her impulsive, high-octane play has been the story of the tournament so far. And Ostapenko has it one her racquet to make it a perfect ending when she takes on Simona Halep in the final showdown on Saturday.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 17:12 PM

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