Jelena Ostapenko aims for a big plot twist against Simona Halep
Latvian’s lack of fear will be biggest problem for Romanian in French Open final
Jelena Ostapenko on her way to a semi-final win against Timea Bacsinszky in the French Open at Roland Garros on Thursday. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
In her spare time Jelena Ostapenko likes to go ballroom dancing and read detective novels. But even her favourite author, Agatha Christie, might have considered the plotlines that have run through this year’s French Open as too outlandish for publication.
A year ago, on her first appearance in the main draw here, Ostapenko was beaten in the first round. Coming into this event she had never been beyond the third round at any of the grand slams. On Saturday the 20-year-old plays Romania’s Simona Halep for the French Open title, and if she wins she will be the first player to win their first Tour title at a grand slam since Gustavo Kuerten did so on June 8th, 1997, which just happens to be the day Ostapenko was born.
The stars have been aligning for Ostapenko, the first unseeded woman to make the final here since Mima Jausovec in 1983. But her place in the final is much more than just fate; it is down to a brand of tennis utterly bereft of fear. She has one game plan: to attack. If that does not work, keep attacking and trust that at some stage it will. It has taken her past Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Timea Bacsinszky and, 20 years after Kuerten, who is to say that Halep will be able to stop her.
As a young child Ostapenko started out as a ballroom dancer
Three years ago Ostapenko won the junior Wimbledon title. As the first Latvian to make a grand slam singles final, she has been making more waves at home, with her country’s president offering his congratulations and support. “He actually called my mum. That’s what she told me, because nobody knows my phone. But it was really nice, because the president called. That means a lot already.”
As a young child Ostapenko started out as a ballroom dancer. It is something she does for fun now “four times a week” and she credits it for her nifty footwork, which helps her to club those crunching groundstrokes. She hit 50 winners against Bacsinszky and her forehand this week has been harder, on average, than that of Andy Murray.
Chris Evert, the former No 1 who was the champion six times here in the 1970s and 1980s, believes Halep has the edge, thanks to her experience.
“I don’t think many players playing in their first finals actually win a grand slam,” Evert said on Eurosport. “I know I didn’t win my first final. It’s an awesome experience but sometimes you can let the occasion get the better of you and interfere with your tennis. I would be surprised if she came out in full force and just started hitting winners all over the court like she has the last couple of matches.”
Halep says she is well aware of the threat of Ostapenko, even if the pair have never played
With Serena Williams having announced in April that she is pregnant and with Victoria Azarenka a few weeks away from her return after becoming a mother, Halep was always among those fancied for the title coming into Roland Garros, not least because she reached the final here in 2014. When the winner that year, Maria Sharapova, was not granted a wildcard into this year’s event, Halep, who had won Madrid and reached the final in Rome, was elevated to outright favourite. The ankle issue she picked up in the Rome final cleared up just in time and, if she wins the title, she will also become world No 1 for the first time.
Halep says she is well aware of the threat of Ostapenko, even if the pair have never played, but will concentrate only on making sure she plays the best match possible.
It’s going to be a big match, tough match. I know that she can play her best tennis. She has nothing to lose
“She’s hitting very strong the balls, but it will be similar to the semi-final [against second seed Karolina Pliskova], so it’s going to be the same plan,” said Halep, who looked relaxed as she sat on Court Philippe Chatrier on Friday, watching some of the Murray-Wawrinka semi-final. “But I will focus more on myself. I’m not focusing on her too much. I just want to do my game, to be there, focused, to move well. Because I need to move very well tomorrow and to take it like it is.
“It’s going to be a big match, tough match. I know that she can play her best tennis. She has nothing to lose. So I’m going there and I will be ready.”
In the past, Halep has been guilty of getting too down on herself when things are not going her way. It took some strong words from her coach, Darren Cahill, who briefly quit in April, for the message to sink in. Since then, Halep has been more positive and found a way to win, even when she was not playing well, as she did in the quarter-finals here, when she trailed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine 6-3, 5-1 before pulling off a miraculous recovery. It comes down to how she copes with the pressure, with the added carrot of the No 1 ranking on the line.
“This match is really important and I will not hide the heaviness that it has,” Halep said. “I say always that I play well with the pressure, but now I don’t need it. I just take it like a big day, a big match. And definitely I’m ready for it, because I won many matches until now, I have the mentality to play this final. We will see, but I will give my best to make happy more people at home.”
– Guardian service