PARIS, France - Defense doesn't win championships. Not in tennis. And certainly not at Roland Garros. That axiom was put to rest on a steamy Saturday afternoon as 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko blasted 54 winners past No.3 seed Simona Halep to not just win her first major title, but to win her first tour-level title ever. Ostapenko completed the most unlikely of comebacks, rallying from a set a 0-3 down to beat the rising World No.2, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the French Open final.
Three thoughts on Ostapenko's fairytale fortnight:
- Ostapenko broke every rule in the book to prove the one that has proven true year after year in Paris.
En route to her maiden major title, Ostapenko blasted 299 winners past a field of top-notch talent. She opened her fortnight with a three-set win over Lousia Chirico and then ousted reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig, Abierto Mexicano Telcel champion Lesia Tsurenko, and then out-gutted four veteran opponents in Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki, Timea Bacsinszky, and Halep in the final. She finished her tournament winning four consecutive three-set matches to win her first title since an ITF 50K Challenger in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2015.
How did the 20-year-old who has never considered herself much of a clay court player do it? By playing the brand of tennis on the Parisian clay that has won the last 13 years. Not since Anastasia Myskina in 2004 has a purely crafty, defensive style won the title in Paris. The champions since then have included Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Li Na, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic, and an attacking version of Francesca Schiavone.
But a 20-year-old playing in her first major final isn't supposed to hold up the way Ostapenko did in Paris. Halep, playing in her second major final and with the No.1 ranking on the line, gave nothing away for free. The 25-year-old Romanian hit just 10 unforced errors over two hours. Through a set and a half, it was a smart tactic. Halep used her legs and let the Latvian hit herself into a set and a break down hole.
The problem was Ostapenko always knew she had the match on her racquet. Sure, she would miss if she gunned for the lines. But her game is based on a gamble: 'when it matters, I will make more than I miss.' And for the fourth straight match against far more experienced players, Ostapenko's gamble paid off:
It's a cliché that Ostapenko proved true: Fortune favors the brave. At 3-3 in the third set, Ostapenko blasted a backhand down the line on break point. Looking like it would go well wide, it hit the netcord and flew 15 feet in the air. The crowd gasped and silence fell. The ball eventually landed on Halep's side of the court. With the break in hand, Ostapenko kept hitting and roared past the finish line.
"She has one rhythm, and she stays in that place, which is a great thing, I think, to stay there even if you miss few balls in a row, and then you start to have confidence and she doesn't miss anymore," Halep said. "So there are those kind of players and kind of my type of players that want to feel the rhythm, we want to feel the game. They just go and play."
Translation: Normal players would be discouraged by 54 unforced errors. For Ostapenko, it was the solution to the match.
- This is a tough pill to swallow for Halep.
The question on everyone's mind after the match was whether Halep could have done anything to unwind the youngster's power game. Some suggested she let Ostapenko control the match due only hitting eight winners in the match. The contrast in styles on display on Chatrier was clear in the stats. Ostapenko hit 54 winners to 54 unforced errors. Halep hit 8 winners to 10 unforced errors.
Yet no one has been able to solve the problem that Ostapenko presents when she's playing well. Wozniacki's unrelenting defense couldn't do. Bacsinszky's craftiness couldn't do it. Halep had no answers either. When she tried to hit for pace, something that was very effective in moments against Karolina Pliskova in the semifinal, she simply opened herself to being exposed on defense. Too much pace into the Ostapenko forehand meant more pace coming back into an open court. Halep was stuck in a tactical conundrum, one that her game is not currently built to solve.
"We came onto the court knowing that sometimes you're not going to touch the ball," Halep's coach Darren Cahill said. "You just have to keep pushing the ball into the corners and making sure that you give her low percentage looks. I thought Simona did a good enough job of that today. Even the low percentage looks became winners for her. I give full credit to Jelena. She won this match."
Halep admitted to being "sick to her stomach" with nerves in the 24 hours leading up to the final. When she was 2014 runner-up to Maria Sharapova in 2014, Halep said she didn't know any better. She couldn't be nervous. But with her first major on the line as well as the chance to become the first Romanian World No.1, with only an unseeded opponent on the other side of the net, she felt the occasion:
- From "choker" to "fearless:" The Ostapenko story.
For all the punditry marveling at the Latvian's mental resilience and seemingly unconscious confidence on the court throughout the fortnight, let's not forget the very different Ostapenko that bowed out in the third round of the Australian Open.
Ostapenko, who had lost in the first round of all four majors in 2016, looked on her way to her first Round of 16 in Australia, leading Karolina Pliskova 5-2 in the third. She lost, 4-6, 6-0, 10-8 after succumbing to terrible nerves.
Ostapenko wnt up to Pliskova after that match to cop to her nerves. "She just came to me and told me, 'Yeah, I was so tight when it was 5-2 in the third,'" Pliskova said in January. "I was like, 'Yeah, I know. I saw it.'
"If she takes it like this, it's really good thing for her. I think she can still move like this, even with the loss, that she lost the match, it's good that she can still take it positive like she did."
According to Ostapenko's coach, Anabel Medina Garrigues, that match served as a turning point for the youngster, who is set to become the youngest player in the Top 20 on Monday.
"I think that situation helped her a lot because she had the same situation here and she already did it at a Grand Slam in January. It's what everybody says. When a player has experience it's because she already went through it and she had it in Australia. It helped her to handle the situation here.
"My words to her were to believe in yourself, go for it, and move your legs. I think if she's convinced she can beat anybody."
So is Ostapenko convinced? She just won a Slam on her worst surface, beating a slew of clay court players (Stosur, Bacsinszky, and Halep all rank in the Top 10 of the WTA Insider Clay Court Power Rankings), and now she heads to her favorite surface: grass.
Ostapenko is a junior grass court champion and with her power game and fearlessness, who's to say she can't complete the Channel Slam? I posed the question to her after the match. Let's just say, the smile was a knowing one: