Jelena Ostapenko made headlines in June 2017, when she won the French Open in three sets against clear favorite Simon Halep. Since then, the road has been a little more chaotic than expected for the young Latvian.
Here’s a rundown of how things have gone in the more recent times for Ostapenko since that famous, shock victory at Roland-Garros 2017.
Roland Garros 2017: A Surprising Duel…
When 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko marched onto central court on Saturday June 10, 2017, no one could have predicted the outcome of the final she was about to dispute against Romanian and fourth-ranked Simona Halep.
And no one did.
The day before, Chris Evert told Catherine Whitaker from Eurosport: “I feel like Simona isn’t going to let this slip away.”
Halep was on her eighth attempt; the closest she had been to becoming a Parisian champion had been her 2014 final against Sharapova, lost to the Russian in three sets.
Surely second time was going to be the charm. On the other side of the net was young Jelena, who, in Evert’s words, was “pretty unknown in the world of tennis.”
Her first time entering the main draw of a grand slam, Ostapenko was nineteen for the majority of the fortnight, celebrating her 20th birthday along with her victory against 31st-ranked Timea Bacsinszksy in the semi-finals.
That day, she dealt a dizzying 50 winners.
She also hit a worrying 45 unforced errors.
Such is the game of Jelena Ostapenko: aggressive, daring, powerful, and high-risk.
This high proportion of errors and winners was one of the two main patterns of her 2017 Roland Garros run.
Four of her six matches saw Ostapenko one set down, fighting for her life in the second set, and finding it in herself to turn the story around – the most striking example being, of course, the final against Halep.
…With a Surprising Outcome
In that memorable final match, one set (4-6) and a break down in the second set, Ostapenko was already, in the minds of many, a – very valiant – loser. Halep advanced through the second set with confidence, leading 3-1 after one hour and four minutes of play.
Around that time, several journalists were making their way court-side for the post-match interview, which would happen, surely, very soon. Congratulatory words were being formed silently in their minds as they put on their mics and adjusted their posture – and these words were for Halep.
It was a little soon for celebrations however; Ostapenko was still out there, and still fighting.
She refused to surrender and stole even more time away from the Romanian, returning serves early on the upwards bounce of the ball, aiming at every line – hard, forcing Halep to miss.
At 30-40 on her service game, the Romanian attempted to throw back a very aggressive forehand from Ostapenko down the court. The ball landed ten inches outside the line, giving Ostapenko the break.
Halep won another game in the set, but lost 4-6 to the Latvian powerhouse who just wouldn’t quit.
The match took a surprising turn in the third set, where a stunned Halep slowly realized that she simply did not have the answer to the questions asked by her opponent.
Every shot was a potential winner, every return an aggression, and every unforced error was matched by a spectacular cross-court shot. The numbers speak for themselves: during this final, Ostapenko hit exactly as many unforced errors as she did winners – an astounding 54.
High-Risk Game with High Pay-Offs
Later coached by the Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, former Wimbledon champion, Jelena Ostapenko was encouraged to find a balance in her game.
In the words of Bartoli:
“It’s about keeping her strengths and adding some percentage that can make the difference.”
Even for a player like Marion, who consistently stood three feet inside the court trying to take time away from her opponents, who, like Ostapenko, believed every shot to be the winning shot, Jelena had to be more realistic. It was just too risky.
High risks, high pay-offs, however.
In 2017, Ostapenko ran away with the French Open title, her maiden WTA title, that is – not too shabby for a first.
She was the second most precocious slam winner, after Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004, in terms of appearances on the circuit (this was only her eighth attempt at a singles title). From number 47th in the world, she skyrocketed to n°12, her best ranking yet.
Ostapenko was unseeded at Roland Garros; in October of the same year, she joined the White Group at the Singapore WTA Finals, along with world number two Garbine Muguruza, third-ranked Carolina Pliskova, and Venus Williams, who was ranked fifth. Such was her meteoric rise to tennis stardom, one she accomplished through gritted teeth and with a killer forehand.
At the time of her French Open win, there were some who rejoiced in the revelation of a new talent.
Chris Evert worded her surprise, mentioning her predictions about the final:
“I never would have picked her in my top twenty! I picked Halep, but I never would have picked her.”
Ostapenko was compared to Boris Becker, winning Wimbledon at 17. She was compared to Evert, winning Roland Garros at 19.
But some drew more cautious parallels.
They remembered Jennifer Capriati, the American superstar whose (very) early wins lead to precocious stardom and subsequent hardships.
Sponsorship deals, the pressure to keep up, and juicy appearance contracts can lead to quite serious burn-outs, and Capriati fell victim to it all – now living in Florida, battling with psychological damage from those under-pressure years, she wants nothing to do with tennis anymore.
Evoking the numerous deals and opportunities that would surely be rushing her way, Evert issued a third-person advice to Ostapenko:
“She now needs to learn how to say no.”
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Words of Caution for a Young Champion
If Evert already felt protective of the young champion, some were also wary of such unprecedented results.
Ostapenko had shown previous signs of potential before June 2017: reaching the semis in Auckland, the third round of the Australian Open and losing very valiantly to Pliskova in three sets (the last one a gripping 8-10 tie-break), as well as winning the Saint Petersburg doubles title with Alicja Rosolska.
The last preparatory tournament before Roland Garros, held in Rome, saw her lose after the second round.
Sports journalist David Law, although pleasantly surprised, was deliberately cautious: “I don’t know, maybe it’s a hot streak.”
In all duels, sports included, it is crucial to have an edge. Up to you what the nature of that edge will be, and how you will use it: it might be a powerful serve (think Raonic), an incredible court coverage (think Djokovic), or a tough-as-nails attitude (think Sharapova).
For top players, History comes into play as well: Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal deal a psychological blow to their opponents simply by showing up.
On June 10, 2017, Ostapenko benefited from the opposite type of edge: she was new.
She had never played Halep, and Chris Evert was quick to joke about the two “looking up matches of the other on YouTube” to prepare for the final.
Ostapenko feared no one, because she did not know better, and it helped her overcome obstacles she barely knew were there. Such is the advantage of youth.
A Difficult Follow-Up
However, youth does not last, nor did Ostapenko’s winning streak.
Grass season brought no significant win: a Wimbledon loss in quarterfinals to Venus Williams, an Eastbourne defeat in the fourth round to Konta. The rest of the year held no better results for the young player, except in Seoul, where she won the Korea Open and her second singles title.
The following year was even more disappointing, with her highest achievement reaching the final of the Miami Open, in March 2018, lost to Sloane Stephens, another young talent. Her WTA ranking dropped ten seats, from 12th in the world to 22nd.
Ostapenko struggled throughout 2019 as well, failing to deliver on her early Roland Garros promise. For the second time in a row, she lost in the first round at the French Open.
Wimbledon saw a confused and under-confident Ostapenko play only one match before leaving. These shocking performances cost her 780 points and her ranking plummeted to a disappointing 79th in the world.
In an interview given by Marion Bartoli to the Tennis Podcast, she captures what it must have felt like for Ostapenko during her fall from grace: “people were telling her ‘oh yeah, you got in [the top 10] by chance.’”
A New Beginning: Coach Bartoli
During the 2017 Roland Garros fortnight, Bartoli conducted many post-match interviews.
She got to talk to many losers, and just as many winners – among which, of course, Ostapenko herself.
The two became friends over the course of the tournament, and had been in touch ever since. When she really started to struggle on the circuit, the Latvian knew she could call Marion, and ask for advice.
She did just that. Bartoli was the perfect person to help; their games were similar (very aggressive, very gnarly) and just like Jelena, Marion knew how hard the tour can be on the mind, more so than on the body.
She agreed to do a test-run with the player at the Linz Open, in October 2019. Ostapenko reached the final, losing to an incandescent Coco Gauff.
Boosted by this performance, the Bartoli-Ostapenko duo stuck together for the Luxembourg Open the following week, which the Latvian won in straight sets (6-4, 6-1) over the second seed German Julia Georges, without ever double-faulting or allowing for a break point against her.
This spell of victories allowed her to make the top 50 again, re-entering at 44.
The rest of the season was not as impressive, with early losses in Beijing and Cincinnati. The beginning of 2020 saw her lose in the second round to Belinda Bencic at the Australian Open, and third round in Saint Petersburg.
Her best result is also the most recent one, with a fourth-round loss to Petra Kvitova in Doha, before the coronavirus spread put a stop to the tennis season.
Like Bartoli says:
“It’s nice to know that your player can hit a winner from anywhere on the court.”
With such a good physical foundation to her game, it seems that only experience and self-confidence will allow Ostapenko to deliver the great things she is capable of on court. Let’s hope that when tennis resumes, we will see a lot of it.