World Number 47: Jelena Ostapenko, French Open champion, creating her own rules

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Jelena Ostapenko: Soon to be the new world no. 12 after a shock run to the French Open title.

In a stunning performance which crowned an unprecedented run, 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko beat no. 3 seed Simona Halep 4-6 6-4 6-3 to win the French Open. I wrote 862 words in 30 minutes about her extraordinary and historic achievement.

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The world no. 47 won the French Open.

To anyone who did not follow the tournament, the story of that lone statistic would be that the women’s tennis tour finally got what it was heading for. Bursting with weak mentalities, uncontrolled talent and plain inconsistency, the WTA looked headed for doom with the Roland Garros draw lacking big-time names like Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. Even pre-tournament favourites, such as finalist Simona Halep and recent riser Kristina Mladenovic, could not be considered reliable.

The news that the world no. 47 won the French Open – the lowest-ranked a player has been in raising the coveted Grand Slam trophy since 1933 – creates the appearance that the women’s tour actually hit the pits. That it got what was coming to it.

And yet, incredibly, it did not. Because nobody since Serena herself has played with such immediate, overpowering, and mind-blowing aggression as Jelena Ostapenko: the just-turned-20-year-old Latvian who won her maiden tour-level title at a major event.

She was 0-3 in WTA finals – the latest of these losses coming just weeks ago on the green clay of Charleston. In her runner-up speech, Ostapenko said little more than how dreadfully she had played. People called her a bad loser. But this past fortnight revealed – now that she has begun to harness the immense, raw talent within her person – just how much every single match is on the racquet of this young feisty woman.

The vast majority of the current WTA tour would consider themselves aggressive in gamestyle. They go for power from the baseline. They rally tough, they try to hit winners. Yet countless promising members of this pack dawdle outside of the world’s top 50. This is partly because they fear making mistakes.

Ostapenko does not fear making mistakes, and it is one of her most potent weapons. For every blazing, bounceless, brilliant winner she hits, she can send a ballooning backhand into the tramlines. But constantly playing matches that bear the complete contrast of unimaginable winners and ugly unforced errors has created her.

And created her just in time for the 2017 French Open.

In her final showdown with Simona Halep – a counterpuncher with something more to her game, playing for her first major title and the world no. 1 ranking – Ostapenko made one of the greatest ever starts to a Slam decider by a maiden finalist. She whacked four thumping winners – two on the return – and strode back to her seat with an air of complete and utter intent. The 5’10” youngster had seen off three seeded players already, and she instantly looked capable of dispatching a fourth.

Then she came out to serve, played a sloppy, wild game, and immediately got broken back.

Ostapenko knows only one way to play tennis. It is instinctive. It is the way she has always played this game, and it was the only way that she could possibly have won Roland Garros at 20 years old with a career-high ranking of world no. 33 and zero WTA titles to her name.

She goes for broke.

It means that she can miss the baseline by a greater margin than you do at your local club. It means that she can find the net on key points. It means that she can drop serve over and over, lose patience on the run and pay the price for taking a risk.

But it also means that she can hit insane angled winners from several feet behind the baseline. It means that she can save break points with such fire that one is surprised it does not burn a hole in the ground. It means that she can strike with a faster average groundstroke speed than Andy Murray, and pound even the finest of defensive players again and again and again until the superb scrambles – such as poor, gracious Simona Halep – cannot take it any longer.

It means that she has built a strong mentality, through shrugging off the errors that she knows will surely come and moving straight on to the next point. It means that she can find her range and zone in the third set of three consecutive French Open encounters with seeded opposition – even if that involves coming back from 6-4 3-0 and break point down in the grand finale.

And it has meant that she won her maiden Grand Slam title in emphatic, gob-smacking fashion – when nobody was predicting it.

By the unofficial WTA rules, Ostapenko – as a maiden WTA major champion – should be scheduled to go on a wander over the next few months: struggling under the weight of new expectation, taking losses too hard, over-trying and straining away to damaging consequences.

Yet, if Paris is anything to go by, the Latvian is not like the general WTA crowd.

In this one instance, constant quality – and having a back-up game plan – is strangely overrated. Because Jelena Ostapenko is writing her own unique story, and the terms ‘consistency’ and ‘Plan B’ do not appear to feature.

But if it means that she’s winning Grand Slam titles, what does it matter?

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Thanks for reading! An amazing win for Jelena Ostapenko. Do you see her backing it up? And what about Simona Halep’s future? Comment and let me know your thoughts!

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