Ostapenko stuns Halep for first major title
Jelena Ostapenko has produced an incredible performance against Simona Halep in the Roland-Garros final, belting a backhand winner for her first major title.
Jelena Ostapenko completed her wonderful and wholly improbable two-week journey from teenage hopeful to dazzling Grand Slam champion on Saturday when she came from a set down to blitz Simona Halep at Roland-Garros with one of the tournament’s most stupendous performances.
Tennis was left hailing perhaps its most startling women’s champion in a generation as the unseeded Ostapenko, ranked only 47th in the world and without a single tour-level title to her name before the tournament, came from a set and 3-0 down to destroy the Romanian favourite 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 with a blizzard of winners on Philippe-Chatrier Court.
Just two days after celebrating her 20th birthday, Ostapenko left the whole nation of Latvia in raptures after becoming their first-ever Grand Slam champion and the utterly fearless manner in which she achieved her incredible triumph in a classic final identified her as a welcome new luminary for the sport.
It’s hard to believe after tripping the light so fantastically here, that there will not be a lot more to come from the former ballroom dancing professional.
"I cannot believe I am champion at 20 years old. I love you guys. It's so amazing to be here,” the joyful Ostapenko told the crowd afterwards.
She reckoned she knew all the history about Gustavo Kuerten winning his very first tour title at Roland-Garros on 8 June, 1997, the very day she was born. Now, she too had taken her maiden senior title at the French Open too. Just perfect.
“I have no words, it is my dream. I'm so happy,” she said. “I knew Simona was a great player. But I tried to play aggressive and everything turned my way. I fought for every point. I'm glad it finished my way.”
It was stupendous, yet who really saw this coming in just Ostapenko’s eighth Grand Slam? Certainly not poor Halep, who in a thoroughly demoralising defeat lost both her chance of at last becoming a Grand Slam champion and also being elevated to world No.1.
She could be forgiven for shedding a few tears afterwards; many within the sport will feel for her too. Yet she showed familiar commendable spirit when she applauded her opponent with the brutally honest assessment: “She deserved to win, played really well, all the credit. She was hitting very strong. At some point I was like a spectator on court.”
So the No.3 seed could really not blame herself. She played a match of considerable steel and professionalism, not making too many mistakes, but her solidity simply could not cope with Ostapenko’s explosive, all-or-nothing dose of inspiration, infused with the fearless spirit of youth.
Ultimately, Halep must have felt as if all she could do was wait for the comet to burn itself out. Alas, for her, it never did, and this loss in a final, she admitted, hurt a lot more than the one to Maria Sharapova three years ago.
Yet for moments in the second set, when she was already a set up and had three break points for a 4-0 lead, she must have believed her moment had arrived. Also, when leading 3-1 in the deciding set, it looked as if Halep may have finally tamed the woman who was spraying around unstoppable winners in bunches and then offering up a host of errors too.
Yet Ostapenko reckoned her mindset changed when she was on the ropes in that second set. “I was a little bit nervous but then I felt I have nothing to lose, so I'm just going to enjoy the match and do my best,” she revealed.
From then on, she was unstoppable and having fought back to 3-3 in the decider, her fierce backhand struck the top of the net and flopped straight in the air before dying cruelly on Halep’s side of the court, that stroke of luck seemed to completely deflate the Romanian as it earned the Latvian the crucial break.
"I still can’t believe this because it was my dream and now it came true."
Ironically, Halep had enjoyed a similar moment of good fortune in the quarter-finals when the flukiest of net cords helped her in her incredible comeback win over Elina Svitolina.
Was Ostapenko going to suddenly wake up and find reality biting? Not a bit of it. Within two games, she had taken the title, finishing affairs with a superb backhand service return that typified her approach.
“I was just trying to go for shots when I could and on match point," she said. "And I was just ‘Okay, I have nothing to lose, I'm just going to hit a winner. Or if I miss ‘okay, I have another one.’”
The decisive shot was her 54th winner of a match that lasted a minute under two hours - and while it should also be pointed out that she made exactly the same number of unforced errors, the enduring memory will be of the flashing strokes sending Halep scrambling around desperately to try to stay with her. She ran 400 metres further than her young opponent during a match played in sapping heat.
Halep made just 10 unforced errors in the match, a measure of her excellence, yet it always felt as if she might not survive this trial by fire with the match never really being on her racquet.
“I still can’t believe this because it was my dream and now it came true,” Ostapenko beamed.
So, what next for this fabulous talent? Ostapenko smiled about the prospect of a career where she could win every Grand Slam and the possibility of winning at Wimbledon where she has already won a girls' singles title.
Yes, one dream fulfilled, but they only get more outlandish now for the Riga rocket.