June 9, 2017
Make no mistake, Jelena Ostapenko is unstoppable when she hits her stride. Amazingly, her forehand is faster than that of the men’s world number one, Andy Murray.
But can the samba-loving ballroom dancer strut her stuff against the best around right now, Simona Halep?
We will find out in Saturday’s women’s singles final, where Halep is tipped to call the shots, having already experienced the tension of a Grand Slam final when she lost to Maria Sharapova at the 2014 French Open.
Whatever happens, however, Roland Garros 2017 will be remembered for Ostapenko more than anyone.
She pulverised the resurgent Caroline Wozniacki when it mattered in the quarters. She showed more mental strength in the semis, when she beat Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-3 on her twentieth birthday.
Dress it up any way you want, but when the business end of the action started, pocket rocket Ostapenko was way too good for either opponent – and Wozniacki is of course a former world number one.
Latvian Ostapenko still practises ballroom dancing to a professional level when she isn’t playing tennis. She says it helps her footwork in her chosen sport – and she adores the samba above all.
But more than her footwork, it is her raw power that is unplayable. At 76mph, that forehand is 3mph faster on average than the Andy Murray forehand.
She leaps into shots yet has the racquet face at precisely the right angle to unleash the sort of sporting fury that requires and allows no reply.
Then you have her feisty nature. She questions anything remotely close to the line, she claims anything when a debate is up for grabs.
Sure, that demanding personality can result in tantrums too, as we saw during the semi-final, when she threw down her racquet at one stage as if to tell the world she didn’t want to play any more, because she had temporarily lost her touch.
But Ostapenko is learning so fast that we are surely looking at a future world number one and superstar, with the bubbly personality to match her talent.
The incredible thing is, she has never won a tour-level tournament – let alone a Grand Slam.
Will the occasion prove too much for her against the far more experienced Halep in the final? It could turn out that way.
Even against Bacsinszky in the semi, she admitted to feeling tight because of the enormity of the match.
If she allows that to happen against Halep, she won’t be allowed back into the final once she loses the initiative.
Simona is growing in confidence. No one is playing better in the world right now, as the rankings will show if she claims glory at Roland Garros for her first Grand Slam title.
If Ostapenko wants to stop that from happening, she must improve in three key areas.
First of all, her serve has to get better. Those second serves are gifts to opponents, and even Bacsinszky broke her at will.
Secondly, shot selection is sometimes an issue. Jelena needs to learn what she can and cannot do at any given time.
For example, when she is chasing down a drop shot, a deft angle over the net works better than an attempted forehand drive with no height and space to play with.
Thirdly, she needs to improve her composure. Once she is in the zone, once she forgets how important a match is and simply goes to work with her power, it’s game, set and match.
So it’s a question of overcoming those nerves sooner rather than later against Halep – and then doing what she does best…hitting the ball very hard indeed.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be a fascinating, joyous occasion. Women’s tennis has a new star. We knew this tournament would produce one – and it has.
Jelena Ostapenko is box office. Never a dull moment. Blistering shot speed to end any argument. Wimbledon can’t wait to welcome her.
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