French Open: A star is born and a superstar shines

Considering that Jelena Ostapenko captured her first major on her least favourite surface and can improve her serve, defence, and shot selection, this fearless and enthusiastic newcomer should join the elite in the post-Serena era. As for the men’s champion, Rafael Nadal, 31, is playing the best tennis of his career.

Published : Jun 13, 2017 19:11 IST

Jelena Ostapenko, the surprise packet in the women’s final of the French Open. Her first WTA title is a Grand Slam event.
Jelena Ostapenko, the surprise packet in the women’s final of the French Open. Her first WTA title is a Grand Slam event.

Jelena Ostapenko, the surprise packet in the women’s final of the French Open. Her first WTA title is a Grand Slam event.

“Fortune favours the brave.” — Cicero

“Her life is like this: Everything very fast. Hit fast. Walk fast. Talk fast.” That is how coach Anabel Medina Garrigues described the whirlwind that is Jelena Ostapenko. As the sports world found out in the French Open final, she hits the ball fast — very fast.

The fast-improving Ostapenko had never won a WTA-level title before she arrived at Roland Garros as a teenager. In fact, she had lost in the first round at all four majors last year and lost her last six matches against top-10 opponents. In this century’s most wide open Grand Slam event — sans Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka — few experts mentioned the 47th-ranked Latvian, even among the pre-tournament longshots.

Ostapenko certainly didn’t imagine the fairy tale story to come. “I mean, when I came here, of course I didn’t expect I would be in the final,” she confided after upsetting 2016 semifinalist and cagey Swiss veteran Timea Bacsinszky 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 in the semifinals on Ostapenko’s 20th birthday.

Simona Halep, who lost to Sharapova in the high-calibre 2014 French final, was still looking for her first major title. A triumph against Ostapenko would also give her the coveted No. 1 ranking. When Halep tore a ligament in her right ankle in the Rome final two weeks earlier, doctors gave her only a “50-50” chance of playing the French Open. Even so, many prognosticators rated her the slight favourite to win here on the salmon-hued clay, her best surface. That confidence was reinforced when Halep, who has succumbed to nerves and negativism on occasion, rebounded from a huge 6-3, 5-1 deficit and staved off a match point to overcome fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina 3-6, 7-6, 6-0 in the quarterfinals. She then captured another crucial tiebreaker to edge second-seeded Karolina Pliskova in a 7-6, 6-4 semifinal.

Ostapenko enjoys reading Agatha Christie mysteries, and she sure kept the boisterous Paris crowd and millions of TV watchers riveted in suspense throughout the final against the favoured Halep. Their sharply contrasting playing styles added to the intrigue. The 5’10”, 150-pound Ostapenko takes go-for-broke shot-making to the extreme, whacking an astounding 245 winners but also an ungodly 217 unforced errors in six matches before the final. On the other hand, the 5’6”, 130-pound Halep, a stylish stroker, runs like a world-class sprinter and slides gracefully to retrieve seemingly unreachable balls.

Would the Baltic Basher or the Romanian Roadrunner prevail?

If Ostapenko, the first unseeded French women’s finalist in 34 years, was nervous, she didn’t show it. The baby-faced blonde assassin fired bullets to break third-seeded Halep’s opening game serve at love, finishing with a backhand winner down the line. Ostapenko’s favourite shots are her backhand and serve, but her forehand packs a big punch, too, averaging 76 miles per hour, faster than world No. 1 Andy Murray’s 73 mph. Her aggressive positioning also reduced Halep’s reaction time. (In the semis Ostapenko stood menacingly inside the baseline 33% of the time — compared to just 11% for Bacsinszky.)

The longer the rally, the better the chances for Halep. But that scenario was highly unlikely against the hyperactive, hyper-powerful Ostapenko, who had played 83% of her points in four shots or less at Roland Garros. Errors flowed from Ostapenko’s racket more often than winners, as Halep broke her serve four times to pull ahead 6-4, 3-0.

Romania’s Simona Halep had a very good chance of winning her first Grand Slam event, but blew it.

“She’s going to need fancy footwork to get back in this match,” quipped NBC analyst Mary Carillo, referring to the Latvian’s ballroom dance training from age 5 to 12. Ostapenko, who still takes four classes a week when she returns to Riga, credits it with improving her coordination. “What’s great about dancing is not just being light on your feet,” pointed out Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova. “But it makes you use every single body part, and that’s very helpful in setting up technique for tennis.”

Ostapenko needed every bit of her athletic and aesthetic background in the do-or-die fourth game of the second set. When Halep bounced her racket in disgust after losing a point, an oddly negative reaction considering her lead, it seemed to encourage Ostapenko and turned the fickle French fans to her side. While Ostapenko was surviving three break points to shave Halep’s lead to 3-1, NBC analyst John McEnroe rightly noted, “Ostapenko is hanging on for dear life now.” Meanwhile, her mother and first coach, also named Jelena, was twitching nervously in the Player’s Box.

This roller-coaster match would have more twists and turns. The one constant, though, was that Ostapenko, who takes very little time between points, dictated nearly every point with her greater power and superior position, almost three feet closer to the baseline than Halep’s. Both assets, power and position, paid off as Ostapenko broke Halep’s serve three straight times with a fusillade of winners to grab the second set, 6-4. Pressure points don’t faze the bold Latvian in the least, and she closed out the set with a forehand winner down the line.

McEnroe commented, “Suddenly, the match is level. Who would have thought this was going to happen?”

It wasn’t level for long, as the 25-year-old Halep, smartly changing pace to throw Ostapenko’s timing off, surged to a 3-1 lead in the deciding set. Then in a repeat of the second set, the Latvian broke the Romanian’s serve three times in a row to reel off the last five games.

The first break came on a forehand return of serve winner to make the score 3-2 Halep. Then with Halep serving at 3-4, 30-40, fortune smiled on Ostapenko. She belted a backhand down the line that should have landed a foot or so in the alley. Instead, it freakishly ricocheted laterally off the net tape and died on the soft clay for a net cord winner. Ostapenko left nothing to chance for the third and last service break. On match point, she blasted a backhand off a first serve for a winner, her 54th of the final. Halep had only eight winners.

Game, set, and championship, Ostapenko, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

“This is an absolutely amazing performance,” marvelled McEnroe. “It’s the first tournament she’s ever won. How about that!”

Ostapenko became the first woman to take her debut title at a major since Barbara Jordan at the 1979 Australian Open and the first unseeded women’s champion at Roland Garros since Margaret Scriven way back in 1933.

The loss devastated Halep, who once again came oh so close to winning a Grand Slam title. “I’ve been sick in the stomach with emotion,” she confided. “Maybe I was not ready to win it.”

Halep also graciously credited her conqueror: “She was hitting very strong. At some points, I was like a spectator on the court. She deserved to win.”

In her post-match interview with Carillo, the ever-smiling Ostapenko said, “I still can’t believe I won here. It’s like a dream.”

Considering that Ostapenko captured her first major on her least favourite surface and can improve her serve, defence, and shot selection, this fearless and enthusiastic newcomer, now ranked No. 12, should join the elite in the post-Serena era. And it could happen fast, just like a lot of things do in her young life.

Nadal rewrites the record books again

What are the greatest individual achievements in sports? Basketball great Oscar Robertson averaging a “triple double” (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists) for the Cincinnati Royals in 1961-62 rates up there. So do the unbreakable records of 1,963 career assists and 1.92 points per game by ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. And you’ll get no argument about cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar’s 200 Tests with 15,921 runs at an average of 53.78 with 51 centuries and top score of 248 not out. Rod Laver's twice capturing the Grand Slam — in 1962 and 1969 — stands out as another supreme feat.

Other indisputable tennis picks include Serena Williams’s 23 major singles titles, Roger Federer’s 18 and Navratilova’s Open Era record 59 major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Now you can add Rafael Nadal’s 10 French Open crowns to this achievement pantheon.

Rafael Nadal poses with his French Open trophy aboard a barge cruising on the Seine River in Paris. The Spaniard defeated Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka in straight sets in the men’s final at Roland Garros.

To put it in perspective, “La Décima,” as Nadal calls it in Spanish, is three more than runner-up Chris Evert and four more than Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros. It also breaks the Open Era record at any major he had shared with Navratilova who won nine Wimbledons. Impressively, the 10 titles have come in a brutally tough era with Federer and Novak Djokovic as his superstar foes. On three of those conquests in Paris, including this year, Nadal did not surrender a set to his outclassed and overwhelmed opponents.

Indeed, a cliche repeated often, especially at this time of year, is: “The toughest challenge in tennis is beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open.” Stan Wawrinka even said it before the French Open final. So soberly — even somberly — that you had to wonder if he felt he had been sentenced to the tennis equivalent of the guillotine.

Wawrinka could find some hope in his splitting their last six matches, though he trailed 15-3 in their career rivalry and had defeated Nadal just once on clay, at Rome in 2015. But that encounter was two of three sets, not best of five sets. This ultimate, gruelling test on the slow terra battue at Roland Garros is where character is tested as much as technique and tactics. Sooner or later, the King of Clay, 79-2 at RG, almost always breaks down his opponents.

This time the breakdown arrived early and was unrelenting. In a “Perfect 10” performance, Nadal crushed 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. After staving off four break points in the fourth game, Wawrinka self-destructed with three unforced errors to lose his serve in the sixth game. And the visibly frustrated Wawrinka, thwarted by Nadal’s rock-solid defence and consistently aggressive offence, was broken again to end the opening set. The first set stats said it all: Nadal had 10 winners vs. 8 errors, while overmatched Wawrinka had only 4 winners vs. 17 errors.

Only a year ago, after a wrist injury forced Nadal to withdraw from Roland Garros, he was sailing off the coast of Majorca with his wrist in a cast and his girlfriend by his side. On TV, he watched archrival Djokovic defeat Wawrinka in the final to complete a career Grand Slam. Now resurgent Rafa was arguably playing the best tennis of his illustrious career at age 31.

The late-blooming, 32-year-old Wawrinka, who had won all three of his previous Grand Slam finals, including the 2014 Australian final against Nadal, tried to blast his heavy groundstrokes at every opportunity. But far too often they erred. Even the 6-3 score in the second set was misleading because Nadal broke Wawrinka’s serve at love in the second game.

“Nadal goes from defence to offence better than anyone in the history of the sport,” rightly asserted McEnroe — and never better than at 4-1, 40-15. Racing from his backhand corner to far behind the baseline and wide of the alley, he unleashed a sensational 99 mph forehand down the line that landed in the corner for a winner.

With Nadal serving for the second set at 5-3, 30-15, Wawrinka had his last chance to reverse the rout. But he over-hit a makeable forehand passing shot by 10 feet. To release his frustration, he smashed his racket on the clay and then finished it off by bending it out of shape on his knee.

Afterward, Wawrinka explained his predicament. “I think from the beginning, for sure, I didn’t play my best tennis,” Wawrinka said. “I was a little bit hesitating with my selection of shots. I was always, like, a little bit between for few reasons. One (was) because he puts this doubt in your head because he’s playing so well. You always feel under pressure.”

That doubt only intensified in the third set when Nadal grabbed eight of the first nine points to streak ahead 2-0. Down 3-1, Wawrinka fought gamely for 14 points. When he appealed to the sympathetic crowd to support him, spectators cheered. But the weary Swiss, who two days earlier had competed for four and a half hours to outlast World No. 1 Andy Murray, had nothing left and committed three unforced errors to give his service game away. Nadal took eight of the last 10 points to complete the demolition. On championship point, the discombobulated Wawrinka wandered in no-man’s land and aimlessly tapped a backhand volley into the net. It epitomised his futility and ended his misery.

After falling onto his back, his favourite victory gesture, Nadal cried some tears of joy in his chair. Then, humble as always, he reflected on his historic achievement. “It’s a lot of joy, but the work goes on,” he said. “As I like to say, if I can do it, someone else can do it. I don’t like to think of myself as someone special. But you need the right ingredients, the right circumstances to win 10 French Opens. I don’t know if I will ever get to meet the player who will do better than I did.”

Stan Wawrinka breaks his racket in frustration during the final against Nadal. The Swiss was comprehensively outplayed.

One of those ingredients, which added to the stellar longtime coaching of his uncle Toni, is former World No. 1 and Majorcan friend Carlos Moya. He joined Team Nadal last year and helped the struggling Nadal sharpen his forehand technique and encouraged him to play closer to the baseline, vary his serve, and hit his backhand more aggressively.

In a column in The Sunday Times (UK), former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash explained how Nadal regained the power on his incomparable forehand. “A combination of self-belief, a correction to the forehand technique, and a little bit of lead tape applied to the head of his racket is all that was required to add extra velocity…. At his peak, Nadal had the unusual distinction of contacting the ball with his forearm rigid for the most part, while 96% of the other tour players have their elbow bent…. (After losing that groove), he now hits with the straight-arm contact all the time.”

With the new Nadal using his old forehand, he racked up a near-perfect 24-1 record on clay this spring and then dropped just 35 games in seven French Open matches. Sixth-seeded Dominic Thiem, an explosive ball striker expected to challenge Nadal, went down meekly 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 in the semis.

Characteristically modest, Nadal said, “Every time you win a major, you don’t know if it will be your last.”

“La Décima” not only snapped Nadal’s second-place tie with Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam titles, but also enabled him to join Sampras and Ken Rosewall as the only champions to win major titles in three different decades of their lives.

Nadal dominated the European clay court circuit these past two months just as completely as Federer ruled the first three months of this year when he captured the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami on hard courts. “Rafa’s playing the best he’s ever played. That’s for sure,” said Wawrinka. “But not only here.”

A year ago, nearly every pundit predicted Nadal and Federer would never hoist another major trophy. Now, these ageless legends appear destined for more Grand Slam glory.

Would you bet that neither Nadal or Federer will win Wimbledon?

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