The winning moment at Roland Garros. Bedlam!
When unseeded and relatively unknown Aļona Ostapenko (more commonly known as Jelena Ostapenko) met No. 3 seed Simona Halep in the finals of the French Open, the sports oracles might’ve foreseen a quiet, straight-sets triumph for Halep, who, with a win, would’ve overtaken Angelique Kerber to become the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, a height she hadn’t yet reached. If contemplating the all-time greats, one considers the likes of Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong, Steffi Graf, and of course, the still-active Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. The nationalities—American, Czech, Australian, German, American—leave off Halep’s Romanian origins and Ostapenko’s Latvian roots. When Halep took the first set and led 3-love in the second set, it seemed as if she would become only the second Romanian woman to win a grand slam event, joining Virginia Ruzici, who also triumphed at Roland Garros in 1978. No Latvian tennis players—neither men nor women—had ever won a grand slam event.
En route to the finals, Ostapenko played four three-set matches, including a notable quarterfinal triumph against No. 11 seed Caroline Wozniacki (4-6, 6-2, 6-2). This might’ve favored Halep, who’d only faced two lengthy matches before the finals, among them a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 semifinal victory over No. 2 seed Karolína Plíšková. Down one set, and love-three in the second set, Ostapenko might’ve been content to capitulate, might’ve been content in the knowledge that she’d earned a berth in a grand slam final just a few days after her twentieth birthday. But the viewer could detect the formulation of the comeback, in Ostapenko’s expressions and gestures, from the flailing, frowning, and pouty, to the steely, sage, and jubilant. She captured six of the ensuing seven games, to secure the second set, 6-4. Her opponent was no slouch, and took a 3-1 lead in the third set, but even then, the viewer couldn’t envision a derailment. The wiry-armed Latvian was swinging for the lines.
It’s not that simple, of course. According to Reuters, Ostapenko committed 54 unforced errors to accompany her—punishing—display of 54 winners. (Halep would collect 10 and 8, respectively.) Ostapenko would lose her serve six times, but this wouldn’t deter the upstart, as she would break Halep’s serve eight times. She didn’t just punish the ball on winners (and unforced errors) but virtually every time she swung her racket. Trailing in the match didn’t seem to matter. So long as there were more balls to clobber, she would clobber them. Ostapenko profited from a ridiculous bounce, a net cord at 3-3 in the third set, but many champions receive lucky bounces, especially those who fight the hardest. She took five straight games to close the match 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, her first title as a professional. The French Open champion didn’t play recklessly, but just shy of recklessness, and maybe that’s how we can define her game. Ostapenko delivered powerful ground-strokes from numerous angles, balances, and stances, just shy of recklessness. She dwelt—regally, precariously, bravely—on that edge, and won the French Open as an unseeded (and mostly teenage) player. She should never play tennis any other way.
Ostapenko’s smile is as formidable as her inside-out forehand.
It surprises me often enough when intelligent people reject the meaningfulness of athletic competition. To the contrary, the fearless vision of Aļona Ostapenko and her unwavering dedication to attacking the boundaries of the tennis court, moved me—I admit—to teary eyes, right after she scorched a backhand return of serve down the line to clinch her match versus Simona Halep. Ostapenko appears to be a kindly person and she didn’t exult in a way that mocked her opponent, yet there too, I found the celebratory imagery to radiate importance: a dazzling reward that compensated her own achievement, as well as the powerful force (Halep) arranged against her. The seasoned American announcing crew was stunned; who wouldn’t be? And who wouldn’t see this performance as a blueprint for any creative foray? There. That’s the crush. Learning from this young person to gamble—every moment—on the promise of your vision.
Sources of Information:
NBC broadcast of the French Open women’s final
French Open match highlights, on YouTube
Reuters match statistics
French Open Women’s Singles 2017 complete results at Wikipedia
New York Times article on Ostapenko’s first name
WTA listing for Jelena Ostapenko
Jelena Ostapenko Wikipedia page
ESPN story about Ostapenko’s progress at Wimbledon
Virginia Ruzici Wikipedia page
Roland Georges Garros Wikipedia page
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