PARIS: Jelena Ostapenko overpowered title favourite Simona Halep to become one of the most surprising grand slam champions of all time.
The 20-year-old, ranked 47, had never been beyond the third round at a grand slam before nor won a senior title. But she was unfazed, hitting 54 winners in a 4-6 6-4 6-3 victory to become the first Latvian ever to win a grand slam singles crown. She also denied Halep what would have been her first major championship and the No. 1 ranking.
Ostapenko is the first unseeded player to win the women’s singles title at Roland Garros in the Open era. When she drilled a final backhand winner down the line, Ostapenko dropped her racket to the clay and held her arms aloft in delight and disbelief. She said: “I think I cannot believe I’m the Roland Garros champion. I’m only 20 years old. I’m really happy. I have no words, it was my dream.”
Ostapenko had blasted her way into the final on the back of 245 winners – more than any other player in the draw, man or woman.
But Ostapenko had made nearly as many errors and the challenge for her was to keep the ratio in her favour. This was the classic contrast of styles, with Halep a superb mover and defender, but ultimately aggression won out.
What was most remarkable was how Ostapenko defied her lack of experience to fight back from a seemingly hopeless position. Halep, beaten by Maria Sharapova in the final here in 2014, had been the favourite from the start pf the tournament and looked to be cruising at a set and 3-0, with points for 4-0.
But Ostapenko trusted in her game and then came from behind again in the decider, winning the final five games. She said: “I knew Simona is a great player and she was playing great. I was just trying to stay aggressive.
“I was missing but a couple of games were decisive and everything turned my way. Even in the third I was 3-1 down but I tried to fight for every point.”
Halep appeared on the way to a relative runaway, leading by a set and 3-0 in the second, then holding three break points for the chance to go ahead 4-0. But Ostapenko would not go quietly, winning that game and the next three en route to forcing a third set.
And then, in the third, Ostapenko again summoned a veteran’s resolve, taking the last five games after being down a break at 3-1. She took advantage of a bit of luck, too, holding for a 5-3 lead when she hit a backhand that clipped the top of the net, popped way up in the air, then dropped over onto Halep’s side. Soon enough, Ostapenko was striking two more winners on the last two points to provide a fitting conclusion.
It was a match filled with wild momentum swings between two players displaying completely disparate styles: Ostapenko’s grip-it-and-rip-it approach vs. Halep’s more conservative keep-the-ball-in philosophy. By the end, the numbers were stark: Ostapenko built a 54-8 edge in winners, but she also had far more unforced errors than Halep, 54-10.
Ostapenko was playing in only her eighth Grand Slam tournament, never having been past the third round before. She also had never before won a tour-level title of any sort. The last woman to win her first title at a major was Barbara Jordan at the 1979 Australian Open.
Not coincidentally, that was also the last time at any Grand Slam tournament that none of the women’s quarterfinalists had previously won a major championship.
So Ostapenko stepped into the considerable opening created by the absences of Serena Williams (she’s taking the rest of the season off because she is pregnant) and Sharapova (denied a wild card after coming back from a 15-month drug ban). Also missing from the tournament was two-time major champ Victoria Azarenka (slated to return soon after having a baby), while current No. 1 Angelique Kerber lost in the first round in Paris. That all added up to an up-for-grabs feeling, and Ostapenko seized the opportunity.