Happy Birthday, Jelena Ostapenko

By Jane Voigt

June 8, 2017 — Jelena Ostapenko’s high-risk game paid off big time today, yielding a high-reward … a chance to win her first Grand Slam title and first career title on Saturday in Paris. 

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“Just glad to be here in Paris,” she said on court, after her 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3 win over Timea Bacsinszky. “I’m enjoying the time. It’s great to celebrate the birthday this way.” 

Although she sounded rather cool and experienced, the Latvian, who turned 20 today, became the first woman from that country to ever have the privilege of playing in a Grand Slam final. And that’s only the start of firsts her victory generated today. 

  • She becomes the youngest finalist at Roland Garros since Ana Ivanovic in 2007. 
  • She’s the first unseeded player to reach this major final since Mimi Jausovec in 1983 — that’s 34 years.
  • If she wins the title, she will be the second person to win her first tour-level title at a Grand Slam. Christine O’Neil was the first woman to do that at the 1978 Australian Open, when she defeated American Betsy Nagelson.
  • She’ll become the first unseeded woman (No. 47) in the Open Era to win in Paris
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Oh the faces Jelena makes: Take One. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

All those stunning facts are fallout from one extremely talented woman. In context of the draw, which in mandatory at any tournament, Ostapenko was rewarded early last week when Angelique Kerber, the number-one seed, lost in her opening round. As a result of her loss, Ostapenko didn’t have to face a seeded player until the fourth round, giving her momentum during the second week of the tournament. However, from that point forward — when she defeated Samantha Stosur (No. 23) — Ostapenko’s job became increasingly difficult. 

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Take Two

Yet, she persisted. 

She took out the 11th seed, and most likely woman to have upset Ostapenko, Caroline Wozniacki, bettering her head-to-head record against the Dane to 4-0. And, today, Ostapenko plied the same full-power game against 30th seed Bacsinszky. The Swiss surely had more variety and experience than Ostapenko, having been a semifinalist two out of the last three years. But angles, drop shots and clever deception made few inroads. Power trumped variety. 

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Take Three

On top of that and an even more interesting aspect of Ostapenko’s win and overall performance, has been her maturity and composure in her first deep run at a major. At 4-3 in the third set she held at love, putting her one game away from victory.

“That was a solid hold from Jelena Ostapenko,” Martina Navratilova said, calling the match for Tennis Channel. “Wow. Bacsinszky is in trouble.”

“I was so impressed with her composure,” Tracy Austin said on Tennis Channel. “She has plan A and plan A. She hits so close to the line. And, she had all the answers to Timea Bacsinszky’s slices, etc.”

Bacsinszky, in her post-match press conference, said, “Forehand on the line again … give me a break,” Bills Simons, founder of Inside Tennis, shared on Twitter.

“In the third set I just tried to stay aggressive,” Ostapenko said on court. 

Fans inside Court Philippe-Chatrier gasped as Ostapenko smacked powerful cross-court forehands, as if witnessing a magic trick. 

“That’s why she generates the pace because she’s moving into the point when hitting,” Navratilova said. “The match is on Ostapenko’s racquet. It’s just a matter of whether she’ll hit more winners than errors.”

Ostapenko hit 50 winners to 45 unforced errors compared to Bacsinszky’s 22 winners and 19 unforced errors. And for a woman who stood her ground from the baseline, Ostapenko came awfully close to equalling Bacsinszky’s net play mastery — 70%/75%. Ostapenko won fewer points off her first and second serves, as well. But that only supports her ball-striking efforts and abilities.

“I was always playing aggressive and hitting the ball when I had a chance,” Ostapenko said, as reported by rolandgarros.com

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Only during clay-court tennis season can players challenge the chair umpire on where a ball lands. Ostapenko did this innumerably in her match today. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

This was no normal French Open semifinal from what we only can say is a rare addition to the women’s game. At 20, she intuitively handled situations that have baffled the most-polished player. Being one to argue with umpires about the exact spot a ball landed, she quickly looked to her box for support or threw up her arms in disbelief if found wrong. But in the next moment the setback seemed to have vanished from her mind. The ability to let go and move forward is key to winning and consistency of performance. If she can display that kind of mental acuity, as she marches forward, we can expect her at the top of the game within the next couple years or earlier.  

“I love to play here, I love you guys,” she said in press. “Im just happy with the way I celebrated my birthday.”

So were the French fans. They sang happy birthday to her, in French, as she left the court.

But maybe that gesture was meant for both women. Bacsinszky also celebrated a birthday today. She turned 28. 

Ostapenko will meet the number-two seeded, Simona Halep, in Saturday’s final. The Romanian defeated Karolina Pliskova (No. 3) minutes ago, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013