Simona Halep is targeting the world number one ranking in Saturday’s French Open final but fast-rising Latvian upstart Jelena Ostapenko threatens to crash the Romanian’s party as a first-time Major champion will be crowned.
Halep marked herself out as a favourite for the title at Roland Garros after winning in Madrid and finishing runner-up in Rome, but a tumble in the Italian Open final left her with ankle ligament damage and cast doubt over whether she would play in Paris.
The 25-year-old has since dismissed concerns over her fitness and finds herself one win away from a memorable maiden Slam title triumph that would also see her supplant Angelique Kerber at the top.
“It’s a big challenge, a big chance. I think I have the game. I have the mentality to win, but it’s going to be tough,” said Halep, who lost to Maria Sharapova in three sets in the 2014 French Open final.
“I learned many things during the years, not just after that final. Also semi-finals in Wimbledon. Then US Open against (Flavia) Pennetta before that match.
“My game is stronger, and it’s different. I think more about the game, and I play smarter, in my opinion, and also physically. I’m much better, stronger. Attitude better. I think I’m different player, and I’m much stronger than 2014.”
Third seed Halep stormed into the quarter-finals without dropping a set, but she faced match point against Elina Svitolina before pulling off a miraculous recovery from 3-6, 1-5 down to reach the last four.
Halep then beat Karolina Pliskova for the fifth time in six meetings to set up an intriguing clash with unseeded Ostapenko.
“I never played against her. I don’t know what to expect from her,” said Halep, bidding to become just the fifth player to win both the girls’ and women’s singles titles at Roland Garros.
“She’s much younger than me. Of course she has nothing to lose.”
Ostapenko’s run is all the more remarkable given her third-round exit at this year’s Australian Open represented her best previous Grand Slam performance.
She is the first Latvian to reach a Slam final, going one step further than Ernests Gulbis in 2014 when a young Ostapenko was in his players’ box as he beat Roger Federer in the quarter-finals in Paris.
In Latvia, she is better known as “Alona”, and that is the name she uses among friends and family. But names are tightly regulated in Latvia and while “Alona” does not appear on the official list of legally acceptable Latvian names, Jelena does, and so that is the name she uses in order to avoid paperwork mix-ups on the world tour.
She comes from a sporting family. Father Jevgenijs Ostapenko was a goalkeeper with Ukrainian club Metallurg Zaporozhe and mother Jelena Jakovleva is a tennis coach.
Speaking to the LTV7 TV channel following his daughter’s semi-final victory over Timea Bacsinszky on her 20th birthday, Jevgenijs said: “We always believed it would happen – and even thought it might happen sooner.”
His daughter showed her athletic ability from an early age, taking up competitive ballroom dancing from the age of three, then picking up her first tennis racquet aged five.
Finding the money to pay for travel and tennis tournament fees was not always easy, Jevgenijs said.
“We had to find a few different sources of revenue – via the internet, doing a few different jobs, using our savings.
“But we found enough money - luckily two generous benefactors appeared who gave us money and asked to remain anonymous.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Ostapenko isn’t even the top-ranked woman player in Latvia – that position is currently held by Anastasija Sevastova.
But whatever the outcome on Saturday, Latvia, which has a population of just under two million, will have two players in the top 20 for the first time.
Meanwhile, a giant screen has been erected next to the iconic Freedom Monument in Riga to show the final.
Ostapenko lost her opening match on her Roland Garros main draw debut a year ago, but now she is hunting a victory that would see her become the lowest-ranked champion in tournament history.
She is also hoping to win a maiden tour-level title at a Slam – a feat lasted accomplished by Gustavo Kuerten at the French Open in 1997 on the same day Ostapenko was born.