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Jelena Ostapenko claims French Open title with three-set victory over Simona Halep

Hannah Wilks in WTA Tour 10 Jun 2017
  • Jelena Ostapenko beat Simona Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to win the French Open title
  • Ostapenko is the first unseeded player to win Roland Garros in the Open Era
  • Latvia's first Grand Slam champion will rise to world no. 12 after her stunning win
Jelena Ostapenko with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

Jelena Ostapenko exploded in the ranks of Grand Slam champions as she defeated Simona Halep in three sets to claim the 2017 French Open title.

Latvia has its first Grand Slam champion in the person of the 20-year-old from Riga, who blasted her way to the title with 299 winners struck over the course of the fortnight at Roland Garros despite being ranked world no. 47 and having never won a WTA Tour title.

The last person to win the French Open without having previously won a pro title was Gustavo ‘Guga’ Kuerten, who lifted the Roland Garros trophy on 8 June 1997 – the same day that Ostapenko was born.

It’s easy to read fate or destiny or something like it back into this coincidence, but it would be doing a disservice to just how many times Ostapenko, with victory hanging in the balance, rose to the occasion and delivered better tennis than anybody else – not just throughout the two weeks of this French Open, but in the final, too. 

Simona Halep was the favourite coming into not just the final, but the tournament after a superb clay-court season and a seemingly changed mentality following a brief split with coach Darren Cahill, who could find no other way to get her to change her on-court negativity. Runner-up to Maria Sharapova at the French Open in 2014, Halep had subsequently looked overawed or flat in big matches, but the way she had dealt with being the tournament favourite and responded to on-court adversity – especially when she trailed 3-6, 1-5 to Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals, and having to battle through three sets against the big-hitting Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals – suggested that she was ready to claim that maiden title.

As part of a gracious runner-up speech, Halep said that she had been ‘sick with emotions’ leading up to the match and suggested that meant that maybe she wasn’t ready to win it. But the truth is that there were very few moments in the match when she had any real control over the outcome. From the very beginning, when Ostapenko broke Halep’s serve with ease in a storm of winners but was then broken right back in a cluster of unforced errors, it was clear that as predicted, the match was going to be on Ostapenko’s racquet and decided by whether her big shots landed in or out. 
Halep did what she could, tactically opting to prioritise supreme defense solidity rather than trying to attack or do too much. Ostapenko broke with another flurry of winners to lead 3-2, then pinned herself right back to 3-3. Halep saved a break point set up by a backhand winner up the line to hold for 4-3 and pressured Ostapenko to deuce in the next game, but the Latvian struck some immense backhands to hold for 4-4. 

Halep’s finest moment probably came at 4-4 when she climbed out of a 0-30 hole with the aid of a superb second serve and then a big, powerful rally on game point which really made her presence felt for the first time, celebrating with a big raised fist as if she had already won the set – which she effectively had, because Ostapenko predictably failed to hold serve in the next game, missing consecutive forehands to drop the first set 4-6.

It looked like slow and steady was going to win the race as the second set developed, with Halep saving three break points to hold in her opening service game before breaking to lead 2-0 and consolidating for a 3-0 lead. She had a point for a 4-0 lead which surely would have been too big a deficit for Ostapenko to overturn – although very little was impossible for the Latvian today – but in one of the rare opportunities she got to influence the outcome, she went for an aggressive shot, a backhand down the line, and missed. After Ostapenko went on to hold, having saved three break points, Halep showed some frustration for the first time despite still being up a set and a break and three games from the title. 

Whether that gave Ostapenko hope or not, the Latvian promptly broke back, saved two break points and held with a backhand down the line to level the set at 3-3. She took the lead for the first time, and although she played a sloppy game to hand the break straight back for 4-4, broke Halep again to love and served out it out to level the match. 

Much will be made of Ostapenko’s do-or-die approach to every ball – and I’ve emphasized it too – but she also did something Halep, without on-court coaching assistance from Cahill, was unable to do: Adjust her tactics. Instead of going for winners into the corner or through sheer depth, Ostapenko still played aggressive but found sharper angles from the centre of the court, allowing her to pull Halep wide while making fewer unforced errors. She had opportunities to break early and failed to convert, then put in a sloppy game for 1-3, but Ostapenko broke straight back as she hammered an inside-in return winner down the line, then found an ace at deuce on the next game and another backhand winner to hold for 3-3. Climbing to 0-30 on the Halep serve at 3-3, Ostapenko swiftly set up two break points. Halep saved one with a good serve and short forehand winner, but on the second, an unbelievably lucky net cord bounce brought Ostapenko’s backhand – headed well out – and dropped it just inside the court, totally unreachable for Halep.

It was a bitter pill for the Romanian, who had benefited from a similarly lucky netcord as she flirted with defeat against Svitolina, and it was compounded when Ostapenko produced a superbly calm, accurate, aggressive game to hold for 5-3 and put herself just one game away from the title. Halep stepped up to the line to try to keep her hopes of a maiden Grand Slam title alive, but by this time Ostapenko was riding high on utter surety. At 30-30 on Halep’s serve, she struck a brilliant forehand for a clean return winner that angled across the court to set up championship point, then nailed a backhand return winner down the line to claim a historic title.

Asked whether this defeat was harder to take than her 2014 defeat to Sharapova, Halep was unequivocal. 

‘This one hurts a lot maybe because I realize more what is happening.  I need time just to -- I don't know.  To go away.’

Ostapenko didn’t seem to quite know what she’d done. She beamed up at her player box, then started packing her bag as if she was about to head off and start preparing for her next match. Officials had to tell her where to stand on the podium when she was handed the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen, and then she held her trophy up for the duration of the Latvian national anthem. In her press conference afterwards, where she was shocked at the number of journalists gathered, she acknowledged that this was huge news in Latvia – where crowds gathered in Riga to watch the final on big outdoors screens – and said it might take her a few days to get used to the idea that she’d won Roland Garros. It will be fascinating to see whether her youthful ebullience survives her sudden encounter with this kind of fame and media attention.

Ostapenko will rise to world no. 12 as the result of her stunning run, but there’s a more enduring legacy here – not just the fact that she’s the only unseeded player to win the French Open in the Open Era, but the indelible impression she’s engraved on spectators’ minds with her audacious brand of power tennis delivered at peak effectiveness at the biggest moment. At a Roland Garros which was all about who could stand and deliver when it counted, Ostapenko not only stood up, but stepped in.

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Jelena Ostapenko claims French Open title with three-set victory over Simona Halep

Despite never having won a WTA title, Jelena Ostapenko beat Simona Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 to claim the Roland Garros title

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