The 2017 clay court season is done and dusted after an exciting conclusion that saw 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko triumph on the terre battue, outlasting No.3 seed Simona Halep in three thrilling sets.
Ostapenko joined a growing cast of characters capable of competing for major titles, many of whom continued their strong form to start the season onto the clay.
WTA Insider Senior Writer Courtney Nguyen and WTA Web Editor David Kane sat down for a long overdue chat to discuss all of the ins and outs from the fortnight in the City of Lights, what the Latvian's win means going forward, and who will be ones to watch during the already-underway grass court season:
Kane on the evolving list of 2017 contenders: As the clay court season was beginning, there was a good deal of consternation because the players driving the narrative at the start of 2017 were by and large hardcourt - if not fast course - specialists. You think of Caroline Wozniacki, Johanna Konta, Karolina Pliskova; a lot of these players are either fairly unproven or otherwise significantly less successful historically on clay.
While we did end up seeing new faces contending for titles, there ended up being a mix of players from the start of the season competing with some newer faces who are more comfortable on clay. Kristina Mladenovic did well to consolidate her form from the hardcourt season, Svetlana Kuznetsova continued to be consistent; even Wozniacki turned around her clay court woes to reach the quarterfinals. Most surprising would have to be Pliskova, who likely considered herself the least likely of the French Open semifinalists - even less likely than Jelena Ostapenko - to make it that far.
We’re seeing a tour develop, rather than massive momentum changes where everything is up in the air. The cast is growing, but it’s getting stronger. In that sense, the clay court season answered questions and provided pleasant surprises.
Nguyen on watching Ostapenko's carefree mindset: I really can’t stand when an athlete says they’re playing with nothing to lose. In tennis, you eat what you kill; if you lose matches, you lose money and ranking points. But during the French Open final, I found myself thinking that if there was ever an instance where I bought into the idea that a player had nothing to lose, this was it.
As Ostapenko won the second set and went into a third, I thought she really didn’t have anything to lose. There wouldn’t be anything disappointing about making a final here. I maintain that there’s a part of her that still doesn’t understand what she’s done. Knowing her the way I know her, it’s like a cool thing that happened, but there’s no gravitas for yet. I don’t think she’s there yet, but that’s great.
For all the times we’ve heard veterans or even younger players who say they’re trying to treat this Slam like any other tournament - the tricks athletes play on themselves to alleviate pressure - I genuinely don’t know Jelena Ostapenko knows what pressure is.
Nguyen on how ballroom dancing helped Ostapenko play pressure-free: When you are competing in ballroom dancing, all eyes are on you. This began for her at a young age, and it means she got used to making mistakes in front of panel of judges and spectators. I imagine that to be an incredibly stressful situation, trying to deliver a dance with a partner you can’t control, managing expectations while trying to do your best.
I think that refined her competitive instincts to where she doesn’t even see playing on Court Philippe Chatrier as pressure. The way that she operates on and off court, she flies on her own plane. She’s incredibly expressive, even petulant at times, but she doesn’t seem to care how she’s coming off. Off court, she operates separately from locker room cliques.
She goes about her business and does things her own way. When she’s in a French Open final against a Simona Halep, then, she’s not feeling pressure.
Nguyen on Karolina Pliskova's clay court improvements: One of the things that stood out was her transparent admission that she plays up or down to her opponent. She didn’t have the toughest of draws early on, and it became a running joke with reporters during the first week where she would essentially say, ‘I’m playing like crap! But something’s working.’
She elevated her game against Caroline Garcia and played her best match against Halep, losing 6-3 in the third. It was a revelation to see her battling ability, that she didn’t mail it in or write off the clay. She even said, ‘This shows you how dangerous I am. Even when I’m playing this level of tennis, I can still beat people.’
That’s an important thing for her to bank, not just for clay, this idea that, “I can beat anyone on any surface.’
Hear more from Nguyen and Kane in the latest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast: