French Open 2017: Birthday joy for Jelena Ostapenko, who sets title bout vs aspiring No1 Simona Halep
Jelena Ostapenko will play Simona Halep in the French Open final after she overcame Timea Bacsinszky in three sets
Eighth of June: This has, over the years, become something of notable date in women’s tennis.
Lindsay Davenport: three Majors and a former No1, born that day in 1976.
Kim Clijsters: four Majors and a former No1, born that day in 1983.
Neither could win at Roland Garros, Davenport making the semis, Clijsters twice reaching the final.
Today, semi-final day 2017, two more women celebrated their birthdays, and they played one another to reach their first Major final. The unseeded Jelena Ostapenko turned 20 and Timea Bacsinszky—a former semi-finalist here—would be 28.
The exciting Latvian, Ostapenko, was aiming to become the first unseeded player to reach the French Open final since 1983, and become the youngest player in a Major final since Caroline Wozniacki in 2009. This junior Wimbledon champion was also aiming to break into the top 20 for the first time—she played here at just No47.
Twice a finalist on hard courts, Ostapenko arrived here proving that her aggressive game worked just as well on clay: a semi-finalist in Prague and runner-up in Charleston, and here she had beaten Sam Stosur and then Wozniacki, both from a set down, to stack up more hours on court than any of the four semi-finalists. This heart-on-her-sleeve, expressive young woman was proving that her mental fortitude was as powerful as her big-time tennis.
Now, though, she aiming to keep alive her hopes of a career first title—and what a place to do it. Appropriate, then, to recall one more reason that made 8 June significant. It was on that very date, in 1997, that Gustavo Kuerten won his own first title at Roland Garros—on the very day Ostapenko was born.
Enough to faze Bacsinszky? Well no: she had her own fairy-tale to tell. Playing a game that is the polar opposite of Ostapenko’s, No31 seed and French-speaking Bacsinszky was hugely popular in Paris, not least for her variety, touch and creativity around a tennis court, and this was her second semi in three years here. However, dating back to 2007, she had made the second round at Roland Garros four times, and when she missed two years with foot and ankle injuries, she came close to retiring from the sport.
A return in 2014 changed her mind: having started the season at No237, she finished No48, owner of a WTA doubles title and two singles titles on ITF circuit.
The next year, she made her breakthrough, that first semi at Roland Garros, followed by the quarters last year. And this year, playing in just her seventh event after wrist injury, she came back from a set down against No10 seed Venus Williams before beating home favourite and No13 seed Kiki Mladenovic in straight sets.
And as if it was not enough that she and her next opponent shared a birthday, the Swiss and the Latvian were also friends: the two had played doubles together at the end of last year. Bacsinszky explained:
“Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I think it’s pretty cool, though. I saw her in the gym just right after our [quarter-final] matches, and we both said to each other, ‘Well done.’ We hugged each other, because she’s a really nice girl. I was happy for her that she was in the semi-final, as well—and that we are sharing the same birthday. But lucky her, she’s way younger than I am. [Smiling] But maybe lucky me, experience-wise, I don’t know!”
One of them would enjoy a wonderful birthday gift—a place in their first Major final—but who?
The older woman got first blood courtesy of her signature drop-shot, 2-0, but Ostapenko quickly showed her spirit and aggressive game, stepping in to receive serve and going for her winners. It worked, and she levelled. She did it again in the seventh game, bounced in to crack a backhand winner, and broke.
Now the Swiss needed a medical time-out, and continued with heavy strapping to her right thigh. It seemed to throw Ostapenko’s momentum, and Bacsinszky got the break back. Another break apiece and they headed to a tie-break, and there the Latvian’s bold play earned her the lead with a forehand winner, 6-3. She would serve it out 7-6(4) after over an hour of pulsating tennis that produced a combined 35 winners to 27 errors.
After an exchange of breaks in the first two games of the second set, Ostapenko seemed ready to surge again, and made two backhand winners for a love hold. But Bacsinszky was stepping up the level from her side, too, serving well, and making scant errors as she chipped, dropped and sliced her way to an important break in the seventh game. Ostapenko was things rushing, and made a couple of impatient errors—one a smash into the net—and then double faulted on set point, 6-3. She looked close to tears.
But what makes this young woman so exceptional, aside from her huge attacking game, is her ability to get straight back into focus and go for her shots. And it paid dividends in the decider. She broke in the third game and survived five deuces to hold for 3-1.
She put another break back behind her to snatch the lead again, and broke with one last winner, a forehand, 6-3.
It had taken almost two and a half hours and, on paper, was painfully close for the Swiss, who trailed by just one point. But if fortune favours the brave, Ostapenko was the deserved winner—and a thrilling prospect for the future. Yes, she made 45 errors, but she also made 50 winners, and made 19 points at the net.
No wonder the Philipp Chatrier crowd rose to sing Happy Birthday. No wonder this new star, who is assured of No18 in the ranks come Monday and No12 if she wins the title, could not stop beaming.
She next plays No3 seed Simona Halep, who survived an aggressive comeback from No2 seed Karoline Pliskova, in another high-quality semi of two hours, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
This too was a game of stark contrasts, opposing Halep’s compact, fleet-footed baseline game with Pliskova’s tall, big serving style. Halep, a finalist at Roland Garros three years ago, has been many people’s choice for this year’s title after her pitch-perfect, energetic performance on clay this season: Semis in Stuttgart, title in Madrid, final in Rome. And she had not had it easy in Paris, facing and beating three seeds, including the in-form No5 Elina Svitolina, before Pliskova.
Would nerves play a part? After all, Pliskova was assured of taking the No1 ranking for the first time if she won, while Halep could claim the ultimate ranking if she won her first Major title come Saturday.
But despite thumping 45 winners against Halep, the tall Czech, who said at the start of the tournament, “There is no chance I make final here”, also made far too many errors, and it cost her dear in the final set—18 of them to one from Halep—and the popular Romanian set her first meeting with Ostapenko.
The match promises a first-time Major champion, and could produce a brand-new No1. It promises, whatever the outcome, to be a cracker.