PARIS, FRANCE— Let's be clear from the outset: history of a high order was made today at Roland Garros in the women's final of the French Open, under bright sunshine in front of an exhilarated audience, against considerable odds. Jelena Ostapenko—the first Latvian player (man or woman) ever to rule at one of the four major championships—battled back ferociously to overcome Simona Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, denying the determined Romanian a crown that the No. 3 seed was twice within striking distance of claiming. Not only did Halep build a commanding 3-0 lead in the second set with three break points for 4-0, but she also took a 3-1 lead in the third and final set. Runner-up in a hard fought and well played 2014 French Open final against Maria Sharapova, Halep met the same fate on this occasion against one of the most audacious players I have seen in observing the sport over the past 50 years.
As had been the case all through the tournament, Ostapenko, who turned 20 the day of her semifinal triumph, found ways to reinvigorate herself after running into rough patches. She is an uncompromising competitor who refuses to back away from a constant pursuit of winners. Perhaps it is the exuberance of youth. Maybe it is her natural inclination. It might even be a combination of both. Whatever the case, Ostapenko is quite possibly the single most explosive player in the current world of women's tennis. She keeps defying the odds, making one improbable outright winner after another, drifting into disrepair with clusters of errors, and then finding her range again to pull off startling shots and gutsy victories.
I have witnessed very few players who can connect so regularly with down the line placements off both sides. Her two-handed backhand down the line is her bread and butter shot but Ostapenko also has a propensity to make spectacular forehand down the line winners when pulled off the court, snapping those shots into the corner with remarkable regularity. To be sure, when she misses she can be off by the widest of margins, but usually her courage and inner belief seem to carry her through.
That extraordinary boldness is surely unnerving for her adversaries, who never know what is coming next, who seldom if ever can relax, who often must wonder if they have any control of their own destiny as Ostapenko rifles away off both sides and keeps going for the gusto. That was just the way she started this contest with Halep on the Parisian stage at the clay court showcase of the world.
She broke the industrious Halep at love in the opening game, releasing one unstoppable backhand down the line, a pair of down the line backhand winners and a thundering forehand swing volley that left the No. 4 seed stymied. But Halep stayed calm, breaking back at 30 as Ostapenko missed with a forehand down the line winner attempt. The nature of the encounter had been established. Both women are decidedly better at returning serve than serving, and neither could maintain an edge in the scoreline for long. This made for a compelling contest from start to finish.
Halep held at love for 2-1 as the Ostapenko backhand faltered, but the 20-year-old was undismayed, holding at 15 for 2-2 and breaking Halep again for 3-2 at the cost of only one point. The flamboyant Latvian was ahead 3-2, but she was broken at love in the sixth game, double faulting into the net to trail 0-40. Halep surged to 40-15 in the seventh game but was stretched to three deuces and also saved a break point before holding on with temerity for 4-3, closing that game with a surprising service winner to the backhand.
Now Ostapenko was made to work exceedingly hard before moving to 4-4 after one deuce, finishing off that task with a scintillating backhand down the line winner and another backhand down the line that provoked an error from Halep. Halep wandered into a treacherous corner in the ninth game at 0-30. She collected the next three points, netted a backhand from an uncomfortable position, but then got to game point again. This time, she sealed it after an absorbing backcourt exchange. Both players were going toe to toe in a big hitting crosscourt forehand exchange but Halep altered the pattern with a forehand down the line, drawing a mistake from Ostapenko on a sliced backhand.
That was a crucial hold for Halep. Ostapenko served to stay in the set at 4-5, reached 30-30, but the Latvian missed a pair of forehands from there as a strategically sound Halep coaxed those mistakes. The set had gone to Halep 6-4, and realizing that feat seemed to carry her confidently into the second set. Despite a 0-40 deficit in the opening game, Halep took five points in a row to hold for 1-0 with a rare service winner down the T. The next game was fought for fiercely by both participants. It went to deuce three times, but Halep broke through on her third break point for 2-0. Her defense was what mattered here. Halep was on the run when she sliced a forehand with good depth, nudging Ostapenko into a wild forehand miss down the line. Halep moved swiftly to 40-0 in the third game before Ostapenko found her rhythm once more. A deep and unanswerable return, followed by a forehand ground stroke winner, and a forehand swing volley into the clear locked the score at deuce. Halep was not flummoxed. An ideally located first serve down the T set up a forehand winner for the Romanian, and then some outstanding defense enabled Halep to hold for 3-0.
The No. 3 seed was rolling. She had captured five games in a row. Her percentage tactics were working well, and Ostapenko was in a bind. The 20-year-old served in the fourth game and was in a precarious position. That was when she stood one point away from trailing 0-4 no fewer than three times, yet somehow escaped. On the first break point, Halep lost control of a forehand down the line on the stretch. Ostapenko saved the second by driving a two-hander down the line to open up an avenue for a forehand down the line winner. And Halep squandered the third by missing a backhand down the line by a wide margin; her shot selection there was not up to her normal standards.
Ostapenko could so easily have been down two breaks and virtually out of contention, but that hold was critical. The Latvian broke Halep at 30 to close the gap to 3-2 for her opponent, but then Halep created another opportunity in the sixth game. Ostapenko was behind 15-40, on the verge of falling behind 4-2. But she stuck to her free wheeling approach. A backhand winner down the line lifted her to 30-40. Halep's return was long on the next point. Ostapenko eventually held on for 3-3.
Halep served in the seventh game with an added layer of pressure. She rallied from 15-40 to deuce but the unrelenting Ostapenko clipped the sideline with a forehand return winner and then made good on a forehand swing volley winner as she moved forward unhesitatingly. From having nearly been two breaks down, the tenacious Ostapenko had moved in front by a break at 4-3. But four unforced errors off the backhand in the eighth game from Ostapenko enabled Halep back to 4-4, two games away from the title. And yet, Ostapenko remained committed to hitting her way out of trouble and she did just that.
The Latvian broke at love in the ninth game. Serving for the set at 5-4, she rolled to 40-0, lost the next point, but sent a forehand down the line into a vacant space for a winner. The set belonged deservedly to an unwavering Ostapenko 6-4.
Halep must have been deflated, but managed to work her way out of a 15-40 corner in the first game of the final set. At 15-40 she profited from a netted backhand down the line from Ostapenko. On the following point Halep was fortunate that her high trajectory forehand passing shot landed safely in the corner. She held on for 1-0 before Ostapenko held at 15 with an ace down the T for 1-1. Serving at 30-15 in the third game, Halep displayed her finest qualities as a match player, changing pace to draw an error from Ostapenko. At 40-15, Halep went to the same formula, holding on for 2-1.
Realizing how important it was to break up Ostapenko's rhythm, Halep did that intelligently to break at 15 for 3-1. She looped a high forehand return down the middle, followed with essentially the same shot, and caught Ostapenko off guard and uncomfortable. Halep had given herself a second chance, establishing a 3-1 final set lead. In the fifth game, Halep was at 30-30 but Ostapenko walloped another backhand down the line winner. Halep made it to deuce but a cagey backhand inside in return from Ostapenko gave the 20-year-old another break point. True to form and character, Ostapenko caught the baseline with a winning forehand return, and so she was back on serve at 2-3.
Halep reached deuce in the sixth game but Ostapenko aced her down the T and followed with a backhand crosscourt winner. It was 3-3. Now Halep met the worst kind of misfortune. Serving at 30-40 in the seventh game, she watched in utter disbelief as Ostapenko's drove a two-hander down the line. It should have gone well wide, but instead clipped the net cord and curled back in for a bizarre winner. Halep wore a wry look on her face, as if she felt the tennis gods were lined up against her.
Ostapenko was unstoppable now. She unleashed a pair of outright winners to hold at 15 for 5-3. That meant that Halep was serving to stay in the match. She made it to 30-30 in the ninth game, but Ostapenko was not worried about the score or the situation; she was concerned only with winning on her own terms by going fully for her shots. A backhand return winner gave Ostapenko match point at 30-40 and then she closed the account magnificently, sending one last backhand return down the line for a winner. Ostapenko had recovered twice from daunting positions, rallying to win six of the last seven games in the second set, securing five games in a row to capture the final set in style. Halep did not collapse by any means; she was simply outplayed by an opponent who was undaunted by the occasion.
And so Ostapenko has won her first major in only her eighth appearance at a major tournament. Remarkably, her Roland Garros triumph is her first tour-level title. The last woman to take a first tour level tournament title at a major was Barbara Jordan at the 1979 Australian Open, but that field in those days did not feature most of the leading players. Ostapenko was pushed to three sets in five of her seven matches over the fortnight, but was never found wanting. She knocked out No. 23 seed Sam Stosur and No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki, as well as No. 30 Timea Bacsinszky. Now the Latvian will move inside the top 20 in the world to No. 12, and the guess here is that her climb up the charts is far from over.
As for Halep, she has had more than her share of meltdowns in defeat, too often losing her temper in tight contests, frequently behaving rashly. But not this time. Her posture was entirely gracious, both in the way she carried herself on the court and in how she conducted herself afterwards in the presentation ceremony. She was playing not just for her first major title but for the No. 1 world ranking.
But Halep was exemplary. Of Ostapenko, she said, "She played really, really well, all the credit. She was hitting very strong. At some point I was like a spectator on the court. She deserved to win." Later, she added, "I was very close to take my first Grand Slam title and also No. 1 in the world. So it was a little bit of an emotional moment, but that's it. I think everyone has it and that's good. So I want to have many more if it's possible. That's why I work 20 years and played 20 years was to have this moment."
Ostapenko said, "I'm really happy to win here. I still cannot believe it because it was my dream and now it came true. I think I'm going to understand that in maybe a couple of days or a couple of weeks."
That is surely the case. But I have a feeling she will realize soon enough that with sustained hard work and supreme dedication, Ostapenko will lift a few more trophies of this stature in the years ahead.