Ostapenko’s Won The French Open Once, Can She Repeat?

Jelena Ostapenko (photo: FFT/Corinne Dubreuil)

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Ever since Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen after her improbable title run to win the 2017 French Open, there’s been the added pressure that goes with being a Grand Slam champion. Three years after winning her first Grand Slam, which happened to also be her first WTA tour-level title, the question which begs repeating in Paris is a legitimate one: Can Ostapenko repeat her Roland Garros title run or is she merely a one-slam wonder?

At Roland Garros in 2017, Ostapenko had just turned 20 years old and was ranked No. 47 in the world when she garnered the first title of her career and became the first unseeded player to win the French Open in 84 years.

When Ostapenko, now ranked 43rd, was asked what kinds of memories she feels when she looks back and strolls about the Stade Roland Garros grounds, she beamed a big smile during a recent interview via Zoom. “It’s such a great atmosphere, especially the final – playing such a tough match against Simona [Halep],” she said. Ostapenko won 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, utilizing a tremendous, all-out display of ball striking.

[Chatrier] was full and the spectators were so much into the match and we were fighting [for each point]. I tried to turn the match around and I won. It’s such a special place for me. I love it so much,” Ostapenko recalled.

Last week, during a Roland Garros tune-up on clay at the Internationaux de Strasbourg in northeastern France, Ostapenko addressed the kinds of questions she’s undoubtedly faced many times before, when Tennis TourTalk interviewed her following her second-round victory by retirement over Kiki Bertens, which lifted her into the Strasbourg quarterfinals (which Ostapenko would lose against Nao Hibino). With wins over Bertens and the round before against Lauren Davis, it offset an earlier disappointment the week before in Rome, when she lost to Magna Linette in the first round.

“I was not mentally ready to win a Grand Slam at a young age,” Ostapenko told Tennis TourTalk. “It all came very sudden. There was so much attention from everybody. My life changed. Everyone expected me to play the same almost every week I played.”

Now 23, Ostapenko has learned through trial and error that thinking while out on the court and translating that mindset into intelligent play will produce positive results. “People still expect a lot from me because they see the potential,” she said.

Since Ostapenko won Roland Garros, she’s been a quarterfinalist and semifinalist at Wimbledon and won titles in Seoul and Luxembourg. However, until Tuesday, surprisingly, she hadn’t won another French Open match. One of five Grand Slam champions in this year’s Roland Garros women’s draw, Ostapenko claimed her first win since her title run three years ago. She needed just over an hour to power her way past 78th-ranked American Madison Brengle, 6-2, 6-1, into the second round against second seed Karolina Pliskova.

“I thought it was a good match,” said Ostapenko, who lost in the first round each of the past two years following her 2017 title achievement. She hit 46 winners to just six by Brengle. “I think I started pretty well and very confident, not going for crazy shots. I think was very consistent today. Still played aggressive. I think I served pretty well.

“I had to get used to the pressure, but now it’s all gone, and finally I won my first match after two years, like, not winning a match here. I’m really happy with that. Because first rounds are always tough, it’s never easy, and you get tight sometimes and you have to deal with pressure. But I felt like really well today on court. Hopefully, I can keep it up.”

Ostapenko saved 15 of the 17 break points she faced against Brengle and converted seven of her nine chances. She said afterward during her post-match virtual press conference that her goal was to be aggressive throughout the entire match, “because I knew that I have play that way against her to beat [Brengle], because she’s a very consistent player.

“She kind of never does any gifts and misses the ball. So, I had to really step in the court and just play my game and play aggressive. I feel like I did it well today.”

Ostapenko suggested in Strasbourg that she knows she can play on a high level. “What I worry about mentally is you have to be ready to play,” she said. “Physically, I have all the opportunities to play on a high level and to be in the Top 10. I’m working to get there and be better, to be confident.”

After her win against Bertens, Ostapenko said, “I’ve always known I can be on this level [of beating higher-ranked players]. I’m slowly getting better. I just need more matches and confidence. I think I can be Top 5, where I used to be, and win another Grand Slam.”

Coming into this year’s French Open, Ostapenko (8-4 lifetime at Roland Garros in six appearances) said she didn’t feel like an underdog. “I’m getting into form,” she said. When she was asked if playing in front of few fans would help ease her mind or just be plain weird, Ostapenko confessed: “Honestly, I love to play with the fans and on the big courts. I really enjoy it. I think that’s what the players are playing for.

“When you come out and there are thousands of fans watching you, I enjoy it even more,” she said. “I never get nervous on the big courts. I just enjoy it. It is the way it is. At least, there will be some fans at the French Open.

“I’m not trying to put any pressure on myself. Now, I’m just trying to enjoy playing the game.”

Now that Ostapenko has lifted a huge weight of pressure off her shoulders with her first French Open victory since 2017, might there be more during this fortnight? She’ll find out soon when she faces World No. 4 Pliskova in the second round. The Czech No. 2, a Roland Garros semifinalist three years ago, overcame 172nd-ranked qualifier Mayar Sherif, the first woman from Egypt to play in a Grand Slam singles main draw, 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Sherif, who was making her Roland Garros debut, saved eight set points during a 56-minute first set to lead briefly before Pliskova rebounded to win in two hours and 15 minutes.

“I was kind of waiting for this clay season,” Ostapenko said after her first-round win. “Finally, here we are. Yeah, just taking one match at a time, but really happy with my performance today.”

On a rainy day, they played on inside Chatrier

A year ago, there would have been no tennis played on Court Philippe-Chatrier, when the rain began to fall over Stade Roland Garros, halting play on all outer courts about 2 o’clock Tuesday. It was another damp, chilly autumn day in Paris.

This year was different, though. Thanks to Chatrier’s new retractable roof, one match played on while the others were suspended. Inside Chatrier, a first-round women’s singles match featured World No. 44 Kiki Mladenovic of France and 66th-ranked Laura Siegemund from Germany. They are a couple battle-tested tour veterans, who were engaged in a battle for Western European supremacy: France No. 1 vs. Germany No. 3.

With nowhere to go to stay dry and still watch tennis, the 1,000 spectators allowed on the grounds at Roland Garros all wandered into Chatrier and filled up some of the seats – socially distanced, of course – and it became the focus of TV coverage, too. Guess what? Siegemund and Mladenovic put on a pretty good show. The German came from 1-5 down and saved seven points en route to turning things around to win the opening set. A big turning point came during the ninth game, which lasted more than 12 minutes. During just this one game, Siegemund saved five set points and five break points and went on to hold her serve for 4-5. It proved to be a catalyst for her as she would win the next three straight games and take the set en route to a quality 7-5, 6-3 victory over Mladenovic.

Earlier in the first set, a double-bounce call on a 5-1 set point for Mladenovic was overlooked and not called by the chair umpire. The Frenchwoman admitted during her post-match virtual press conference that it affected her for the rest of the match.

“Obviously that double bounce, it was set point, supposed to be 6-1, and I think the chair umpire was the only person not to have seen it on the Centre court,” Mladenovic said.

“So, we can call that a turning point. I should have been 6-1. I don’t know about the outcome of the rest of the match after that, but, yeah, was definitely a key point.”

Mladenovic added: “It did affect me. I really tried to stay calm, though, and not to try to complain much, because it was a brief complaint, because in these kinds of situations, you know that they are bad, they made a mistake, there is nothing you can do about it. Just have to try to refocus and keep going. I had the results still in my hands, but you see how tennis, it’s about one point at times. And I got to give [Laura] credit for going for her shots afterwards and slowly coming back.”

What they’re saying

• Reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, who has won five WTA titles since the beginning of 2019, was asked by Tennis Channel‘s Jon Wertheim, following her 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 first-round win over No. 125 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, how she balances going forward with her career after winning a major and what her expectations of playing Roland Garros were. The World No. 6 Kenin said:  “I decided to take this one match at a time. I know there’s more expectations from the outside – from the media – which is always good to have. It means I’m doing something right. I like the pressure but, of course, somehow, I have to handle it. I’m doing the best I can. I survived this one – I got a win – and here, a win’s a win. It doesn’t matter how you win – ugly, pretty – it doesn’t matter. You just get the win.

“Winning a major is something I’m never going to forget. It was so special because some people don’t win a major and, obviously play some great tennis. I told myself ‘I have a long career ahead. I’m going to do the best I can.’ 

“I want to do well at the slams, hopefully. Of course, I would love to win more majors, it’s the best feeling you can ever have.”

Next, the fourth seed Kenin will face No. 93 Ana Bogdan of Romania in the second round.

• Following her 7-6 (4), 6-4 first-round loss to Fiona Ferro of France, Great Britain’s Heather Watson, who was her country’s last hope in either the men’s or women’s singles draw, spoke openly and honestly about balancing her emotional well-being during the coronavirus pandemic against the challenges of being a professional tennis player:

Passer des coups

• Just how big of a deal was Mayer Sherif‘s Roland Garros debut? Well, it marked the first time that an Egyptian woman had made the main draw in a Grand Slam tournament. She received good luck support from Egyptian and Liverpool football star Mohamed Sarah via Twitter. That Sherif faced No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova, who just happens to be ranked No. 4 in the world – and won the opening set – was like icing on the cake.

For one set, it looked like anything was possible for Sherif, who played college tennis in the United States at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. The 172nd-ranked Egyptian saved eight – yes, EIGHT – set points against the Czech No. 2 en route to winning the first set 7-6. Then, Pliskova struck back and won 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4 in two hours and 15 minutes.

• Indeed, the kids are alright as Danish 17-year-old Clara Tauson proved with her huge upset in her Grand Slam main draw debut. Tauson beat US Open semifinalist and No. 21 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States, 6-4, 3-6, 9-7 in two hours and 45 minutes. Tauson, who was last year’s Australian Open junior champion, rallied from 2-4 down in final set and saved two match points en route to her triumph. She hit 48 winners.

“It was a dream come true, of course, and then winning the match, I don’t have any words yet,” said an excited Tauson after her victory. Next, she’ll face another American, unseeded No. 57 Danielle Collins, in the second round.

By the numbers

• Men’s 10th seed Roberto Bautista Agut improved to 8-0 in Roland Garros first-round match’s with his 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-1 victory over Richard Gasquet of France. Bautista Agut, who hit 32 winners and broke Gasquet eight times, is 27-4 lifetime in Grand Slam first-round matches.

• American Marcos Giron defeated French wild card Quentin Halys 7-5, 3-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 8-6 in four hours and 22 minutes in his Roland Garros main draw debut. It was also Giron’s first career tour-level clay match win. Giron became the eighth American man to reach the second round of the French Open, most since nine advanced to the second round in 1996.

Now it can be told

• World No. 1 and men’s top seed Novak Djokovic, who won the 2016 Roland Garros title, was asked after his 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 win over Sweden’s Mikael Ymer to describe the feeling of playing the French Open so late into the calendar year. He said:

“Obviously, these conditions are different than what we are used to here in French Open. Everyone has been talking about it. The balls, the heavy clay, the cold weather. It all affects the play, of course. 

“But I think it’s quite suitable to my style of the game. I actually enjoyed myself on the court today. I think I played really well. A few hiccups here and there, but I think generally the game is there.

“I’m ready physically, mentally, emotionally to go deep in the tournament. Hopefully, I can have another successful year here in Paris.”

• World No. 6 Sofia Kenin was asked during her virtual press conference Tuesday if the extended lockdown of the WTA Tour due to the coronavirus pandemic gave her a chance to really appreciate and relish what she achieved by winning the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam title. She said:

“I obviously really wish we would have kept playing because I felt like I was playing really well and I would have wanted to play matches and travel around the world and more competition. 

“So not happy about the fact that the COVID happened; it’s unfortunate. But, yeah, it gave me perspective on things. I obviously thought about Australia. … It’s not easy to find that rhythm and game, I guess, after like six months of suddenly not playing matches at all.”

• South Africa’s Kevin Anderson is no stranger to playing long matches and tie-breaks. One need only look back to his 2018 Wimbledon semifinal against John Isner, which lasted six hours and 36 minutes – second-longest in Grand Slam history – and featured a fifth set that Anderson won 26-24. During his virtual press conference that followed his first-round 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win over Laslo Djere of Serbia, Anderson was asked about whether the French Open should cap the length of the fifth set and institute some form of a tie-break like the other Grand Slams. He said:

“I think instituting something would be good. Whether they want to do it – I mean, people were asking me that about Wimbledon. They made it 12-all. I think 6-all is fine, like how the US Open has done it. I know Australia is like, I think, 10-all. I think it’s good to have some sort of limit on it. I mean, I would definitely encourage the French Open to do that. 

“In terms of the three-out-of-five sets, it’s interesting. …

“I mean, I would definitely say that I’m a big fan of continuing to play three-out-of-five sets. I feel like it’s a very unique setup. How much is at stake in the Grand Slam format, what it takes in order to win three-out-of-five sets. I feel there’s different demands that you don’t experience playing two-out-of-three sets. 

“With so much history, every Grand Slam, I feel like it’s part of our sport. I mean, I would really encourage, at least from my side, would definitely want three-out-of-five sets to remain.”

• At 15 minutes past midnight early Tuesday morning, history was made on Court 7 at Roland Garros with the latest-finishing match in the history of the French Open. French wild card Clara Burel, ranked 357th, defeated No. 67 Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 6-3 after two hours and 57 minutes. Burel came on strong with four breaks of Rus’s service in the final set.