French Open 2018: With serves and groundstrokes off the flanks failing her, Jelena Ostapenko learns a hard lesson

A lot of records were made and broken when Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open in 2017. By winning the clay-court Major she became the first Latvian, man or woman, to win a Grand Slam; she was the first unseeded woman to win the tournament since Peggy Scriven of Great Britain won the title in 1933. It was also the 20-year-old’s first ever senior level title.

There was another lesson in history for Ostapenko at Roland Garros this year. She became the first French Open champion since 2004 winner Anastasia Myskina to lose in the first match of her title defence.

Jelena Ostapenko reacts during her French Open first round match with Kateryna Kozlova. Reuters

Jelena Ostapenko reacts during her French Open first round match with Kateryna Kozlova. Reuters

In a first round tie that went on for an hour and 35 minutes, an unseeded Kateryna Kozlova stunned the World No 5 in a 7-5, 6-3 win at the Philippe-Chatrier.

Kozlova, the 24-year-old Ukrainian ranked 66th in the world, is no stranger to Ostapenko though. The pair had met twice before, back at a Futures event in 2014 followed by a second round meeting on the grass courts of ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands in 2016. On both occasions, Kozlova emerged as the victor.

Surely at the French Open, the Latvian would get off the head-to-head mark with Kozlova. This was the stage where the then World No 47 had risen to unexpectedly beat third seed Simona Halep in the 2017 final. But it wasn’t to be. Especially when Ostapenko’s powerful weapons — her thunderous groundstrokes off both flanks — were off radar.

At 20, the youngster can bludgeon the ball cleanly and with immense force. So much so that the average speeds of her forehand drives clocked 76 mph — 3 mph greater than three-time men’s singles Major winner Andy Murray.

“When I found out that it was faster than Andy’s forehand, I was like, ‘Wow, I must hit it pretty fast,’” she said to The Sunday Times. “Actually I always thought that I hit the ball quite hard but not harder than the top male players.”

In January this year, Ostapenko took up boxing after attending a bout, to add to her exercise regimen and further strengthen those already strong shoulders and forearms.

Though she has struggled for form this season — she did reach the final of the Miami Masters — it was at the French Open where she was expected to punch her weight. Only, her winner-searching drives on the coveted clay courts of Paris ended up with the points going in the way of her opponent.

In all, Ostapenko was guilty of committing 48 unforced errors — which equals 12 whole games. Kozlova, meanwhile, was steady and consistent, committing only 22 errors. At the same time, the accuracy of Ostapenko’s service game evaded her as she committed 13 double faults, all at crucial junctions.

In only her second service game of the match, with the score at 1-1, she served two in a row to face a break point that Kozlova would convert. Ostapenko would recover to make it 4-4 and the pair would trade service breaks till the Latvian, serving on a break point at 5-5 would have to endure a return winner down the line. Kozlova would hold serve then to secure the first set 7-5.

In the second, at 3-3, Ostapenko’s service rhythm withered away yet again. She served two double faults to take the game at 15-40. She did manage to recover, then faced another break point, and then served a third double fault in the game.

The advantage gave Kozlova the momentum, and the Ukrainian held on and sealed off the match and a historic win.

At match point though, there was a cruel coincidence for the fallen champion.

Often has she told the story of how a stroke of luck against Halep last year helped changed the tide of the final.

“I hit a backhand down the line. It was going so far out, then it touched the net and dropped on her side,” Ostapenko recited again to The Sunday Times. “In that moment I realised that this is a sign. Inside I had these feelings that after this shot I cannot lose any more, I have to win the match. It just went my way because I was not afraid to miss.”

That point changed the fortunes of that match and put Ostapenko on course to a win that cemented her name in the record books.

Against Kozlova, facing match point, Ostapenko would again try a strong backhand down the line. Again it struck the net, but this time would go no further.

There was also a first for Kozlova as well — her first win over a top-30 player.

The fall of the defending champion though wasn’t the first upset in the women’s draw on Sunday. Seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams was knocked out of the draw after a straight sets defeat to World No 91 Qiang Wang of China. Earlier still, veteran and 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone too exited the tournament.


Updated Date: May 28, 2018 10:45 AM

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