10 Jun 2017

Courage and fate mark Ostapenko’s Roland Garros triumph

News Article

By Reece Lawrence

Jelena Ostapenko (LAT)

In the days before Saturday’s women’s final at Roland Garros, the weather in Paris during the tournament’s second week had been cloudy, cool and at times blustery. Perhaps fitting then, for temperatures to finally rise in time for a women’s singles final which had more than an element of heat – and fate – to it.

The sun beat down onto Court Philippe Chatrier on a day where history was made as Latvia's Jelena Ostapenko defeated Romanian star Simona Halep in three pulsating sets 46 64 63 in just under two hours. She becomes the first Latvian Grand Slam champion in history, the first unseeded woman and lowest ranked competitor to win here in the Open Era. Her incredible rise to stardom was made all the more remarkable given she had been a set and three games down.

Though both Ostapenko and the No. 3 seed Simona Halep were after their maiden Grand Slam titles, the nature of their respective appearances in the final starkly contrasted. In the context of experience Halep was very much the seasoned professional here, even at just 25 years old – this was her 28th Grand Slam event and her second Roland Garros final in four years.

On the other hand, Ostapenko had never won a Tour-level title as she turned up for this year’s edition of the clay court showpiece. She celebrated her 20th birthday on the day of her semifinal win on Thursday. Reaching the final in itself was a huge achievement for a player who has received considerable support from the Grand Slam Development Fund (GSDF) as a member of several junior touring teams and as a recipient of GSDF travel grants.

The fearless young competitor had overcome three seeds en route to the final, characterised by a relentless tally of winners – 245 by the time she had despatched Timea Bacsinszky in the last four. The showdown with Halep made for a ferocious final. After an early exchange of breaks with both players understandably nervous, Ostapenko began to show flashes of the tremendous forehand that has brought her much success these past two weeks.

Yet with the risk associated with her powerful groundstrokes, the unforced errors began to mount and Halep broke the Latvian when it mattered, taking the first set. By the time Halep broke her in the second game of the second set, Ostapenko had racked up 28 unforced errors to her opponent’s three. "It's just the way I play," she later said. "And also I think my character is like that. So I want to really hit the ball."

Both players struggled to hold serve throughout the second. At one point, Halep looked to have taken control only to lose her focus, allowing Ostapenko to serve out the set to take it to a decider. From then the Latvian grew in confidence, not deterred by the unpredictability of her shots. She began to cut the unforced errors out although Halep continued to defend robustly.

With break point for Ostapenko in the seventh game, a wayward backhand – headed well inside the tramlines – clipped the net and somehow dropped in with Halep stranded on the baseline. Ostapenko held both hands up in apology, but destiny, it seemed, had dealt the 20-year-old a winning hand. With Halep serving to stay in the match, a typically deadly backhand winner sealed Ostapenko’s first major triumph.

As evening set in for the first all-unseeded Roland Garros men's doubles final for 24 years, it was the pairing of American Ryan Harrison and New Zealander Michael Venus who eventually came out on top. They defeated Mexican Santiago Gonzalez and American Donald Young in three sets 76(5) 67(4) 63 to win their first Grand Slam title, with Venus becoming the first New Zealander to win a Grand Slam title since 1979.

On the topic of destiny, the last player to win their maiden Tour-level title at Roland Garros was the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten on 8 June 1997 – the day Ostapenko was born. Ostapenko herself acknowledged the fact on court, her win very much written in the stars.

For Halep, the wait goes on but her time may yet still come. "It's a tough day, but let's keep working and let's believe," she announced to her coaching team during the trophy presentations.

Ostapenko, too, can only keep working – and she has every reason to believe she can aim even higher.