French Open 2019: Erratic serves, piling double faults prove Jelena Ostapenko's undoing in opening round against Victoria Azarenka

Ostapenko never lacks conviction; her double faults are not the result of tentativeness. It is the technique — the ball toss, to be more precise — that is all over the place. It’s almost as though she herself doesn’t know where the ball is going. She just seems to be throwing it in the air, closing her eyes and hoping for the best.

Musab Abid May 29, 2019 09:28:02 IST
French Open 2019: Erratic serves, piling double faults prove Jelena Ostapenko's undoing in opening round against Victoria Azarenka
  • Ostapenko has failed to win a match at Roland Garros since her title run in 2017

  • Ostapenko made 60 errors but was still somehow in a position to win both the sets

  • Ostapenko has lost nearly twice as many matches as she’s won this year

Through the first eight games of the match between Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko, it was hard not to get drawn into a sardonic little guessing game.

“Who will hold first?”

That’s what we were reduced to asking ourselves, in part disbelief and part amusement. The two women repeatedly failed in their bid to win four straight points on serve, even after the set had gone well past the half-way mark. And nobody was quite sure whether to laugh or to cry.

French Open 2019 Erratic serves piling double faults prove Jelena Ostapenkos undoing in opening round against Victoria Azarenka

Jelena Ostapenko crashed out of French Open after an opening round straight-set loss to Victoria Azarenka. AFP

But ‘win four straight points on serve’ might actually be a charitable way of putting it, at least in the case of what Ostapenko was attempting to do on the court. It would be more appropriate to say that she was trying not to be a wild, error-spewing mess.

The Latvian made as many as 11 double faults in her first five service games of the match. That’s an average of more than two double faults per game, which means Azarenka had to win just two points on her own to get each break. And it’s not like Ostapenko was anything close to clean with her groundstrokes either; she made 27 unforced errors in the first set, and 33 in the second.

Let that sink in for a moment: Ostapenko made 60 errors in a match that didn’t even go three sets. Her final double fault count — 17 — was also embarrassingly high, but still an improvement over the horror show of the first five games. She just didn’t seem capable of keeping the ball in the court for longer than a minute; it was all we could do to not close our eyes in fear every time she got ready to swing her racquet.

This was a far cry from her run at the same venue two years ago. A gifted power player just out of her teens who seemingly knew no fear, Ostapenko set the 2017 French Open alight with her incredible shot-making. Poor Simona Halep didn’t know what hit her in the final, as more than 50 winners from the whip-like racquet of the Latvian went blazing past her.

How could things have changed so dramatically in just two years? Ostapenko has failed to win a match at Roland Garros since her title run. In fact, she has never won a match on Parisian clay before or after 2017; she lost in the first round at the 2015 and 2016 events, as well as the 2018 and 2019 ones.

In a way though, her record does make a bit of sense. Ostapenko is nothing if not a mercurial talent; every fibre of her game screams ‘boom or bust’. She always seems to be doing one of two things: hitting a winner, or making an unforced error. There’s no middle ground with her.

In the match against Azarenka, Ostapenko made 60 errors but was still somehow in a position to win both the sets (and by extension the match) — she was a break up in each. That’s not because of some voodoo or funny business. It was simply because, for every couple of appalling misses, she also smacked an eye-popping winner.

Ostapenko’s baseline game is irresistibly imposing. Her forehand is one of the most singularly devastating weapons in the sport. Her backhand, which she often takes from well above shoulder height, would make for a good case study on how to produce perfect timing with a single, unflinching swing. And her movement, fine-tuned by her years of ballroom dancing as a kid, is smooth and perfectly balanced; she almost always seems to have a lot of time to play her shots.

All of her technical proficiency off the ground helped Ostapenko strike 33 winners against Azarenka, which is a fairly high number for a two-set match. If you take away her double faults, her winner-to-error ratio of 33 to 43 is not terrible; matches have been won with significantly worse numbers.

The sad reality for Ostapenko, of course, is that you can’t take away the double faults. The serve is the most basic and inescapable part of tennis. And it is possibly the single biggest cause of Ostapenko’s fall from grace.

It’s not clear why she misses so many of them. Ostapenko doesn’t have the biggest or riskiest second serve; a lot of times she just rolls it in with plenty of air, merely trying to start the point. And yet in 2019, she has made an astonishing 145 double faults in just 20 matches. Even Maria Sharapova would be embarrassed to have that kind of record — and Sharapova at least hits her second serve with pace and close to the lines.

It’s to the credit of the Latvian that she rarely, if ever, lets her double faults affect her confidence. It’s not unusual to see her hit a limp serve into the bottom of the net and immediately follow that with a screaming, no-holds-barred forehand winner. But no amount of winners can undo the damage of 17 double faults in the space of two sets.

The malaise has been getting progressively worse since that breakthrough Roland Garros run. Players now know that she is never in control of her serve, and therefore never assured of a hold. The most important shot in the game has turned into a huge liability for her. And that is showing in her results.

Ostapenko has lost nearly twice as many matches as she’s won this year, and her ranking has slid to a lowly 39. Once hailed as the leader of the WTA Next Gen, Ostapenko is now labelled as the mother of all flukes; many find it hard to believe that she actually won seven matches in a row at the 2017 French Open. And the memory of that earth-shattering performance will likely get even more blurred if her serving woes continue.

The mind is clearly not the problem. Ostapenko never lacks conviction; her double faults are not the result of tentativeness. It is the technique — the ball toss, to be more precise — that is all over the place. It’s almost as though she herself doesn’t know where the ball is going. She just seems to be throwing it in the air, closing her eyes and hoping for the best.

When Ostapenko won the French Open, she had Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues as her coach, and the two stopped working together at the end of 2017. She has changed two coaches since then, but her serving technique hasn’t seen any noticeable improvement. It’s tough to imagine that she isn’t working on her serve during training, but it’s tougher to comprehend how a professional tennis player, let alone a Slam champion, can be so clueless about a shot while appearing on the biggest stage of the sport.

Ostapenko is still just 21, so she has a lot of time on her hands to address whatever is behind her serving yips. And it would be a crying shame if she didn’t. Nobody would want to see her glorious winners being perpetually undone by her sorry double faults; nobody would want her to remain a one-Slam wonder for the rest of her career.

The “when will she stop being a double-fault-spewing mess” guessing game is not fun. The sooner it goes away, the better.

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