On June 8, 1997, a 20-year-old Brazilian named Gustavo Kuerten won the men’s singles title at Roland Garros. His first title of any sort, Kuerten winning the French Open that year – the first of his three titles in Paris – catapulted his name to great heights, even as it went on to establish an unending and enduring legacy at the venue.
Our story isn’t, however, about Kuerten. It’s about another 20-year-old – albeit twenty years removed – a Latvian girl called Jelena Ostapenko.
Born on June 8 1997, the very day when Kuerten first became acquainted with French tennis, Ostapenko’s initial and inadvertent brush with tennis seemed to have been concretely acknowledged with her emulating Kuerten’s feat by winning her maiden title at the tournament, against Simona Halep on Saturday.
From being unknown...
When it began, the match followed on expected lines. Ostapenko took the lead by breaking Simona Halep, only for the Romanian to strike back with a break of her own. The tussle between the two opponents continued for the next couple of games, before Halep – ranked 43 places above her younger rival – asserted her mien as the tournament favourite to clinch the opening set. And, it was after this point that the match began to veer, ever so slightly, turning away from Halep’s corner to Ostapenko’s.
Much like her style of play, Ostapenko’s demeanour is just as upbeat even when she’s trailing her opponents in a match. She does have her quirks of motivating herself, which range from hearty fist pumps after winning a point to her ebullient version of pointing her finger to her temple when trying to remonstrate with herself. However, unlike other players whose game abandons them once they lose a set, it’s when she is down by a set that Ostapenko’s fighting spirit unmistakably perks up.
Five of Ostapenko’s seven matches at the French Open, including her final against Halep, had been determined at the end of the third set. And, unfailingly in each of these five matches, her natural game looked to be much pronounced and dictated with a lot more controlled aggression.
There’s no better example to cite in this context than the statistical breakdown of Ostapenko’s shots in her 119-minute final.
The tally of Ostapenko’s unforced errors for the final was 54. However, while 23 of these unforced errors came in the first set alone, the remaining 31 were split 18 and 13 each for the second and third sets respectively. Even though Halep was successful in capitalising on Ostapenko’s errors in the first set to gain an advantage, Ostapenko gave her no momentum to do so in the final stages of the game, even as she continued to drill her forehands and backhands at angles to either move Halep far out of position or to hit outright winners.
A change of guard?
Incidentally, if there had been any player who was similarly focused across the two-week run of the tournament, it was Halep.
Halep encountered her first tough fight in the tournament, against Elina Svitolina in their quarter-final when she trailed 1-5 in the second set. It was with icy composure that she negated the Ukrainian’s lead to secure a place in the semi-final, where she played out another defiant match against the second seed Karolina Pliskova.
It was then quite a decisive – and demoralising – turnabout for the world No 3 in the all-important match on Saturday, as she failed to rise to the challenge when it was needed the most.
Contrastingly, for all her inexperience, playing in what will now be forever regarded as her career-defining match, this was one aspect in which Ostapenko didn’t falter, proving herself to be a champion in equanimity in tandem with the scoreline.
Ostapenko’s fortnight in the city of lights is, thus, also the tale of grit and fearlessness overcoming experience – and favouritism – to give a fitting end to the tournament by producing one last upset to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.