Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jelena Ostapenko: an expert dancer who prefers to lead

It "shouldn't" have happened. Kind of like the hummingbird "shouldn't" be able to fly. But it did happen: Jelena Ostapenko, who had never before won a WTA tournament, defeated obvious favorite Simona Halep today and became the 2017 French Open champion.

Ostapenko is the first unseeded player in 74 years to win the event. She entered the tournament ranked number 47 in the world, and on Monday, she'll be ranked number 12--with a bullet.

The young, very expressive, ballroom-dancing Latvian appears to have swirled around in a ring of magic throughout her two weeks at Roland Garros. She won her semifinal match on her birthday (oddly, played against a friend and former doubles partner who was observing her birthday, also). And we know how some people like to extend their birthday celebrations into the weekend--well, no one can do that better than Ostapenko just did.

But that coincidence pales compared with this one: The last player to win the French Open as his first tournament was Gustavo Kuerten, and he did it on June 8, 1997--the day Ostapenko was born.

You can't make this stuff up.

Halep was the runner-up in 2014, after playing a very hard-fought final against Maria Sharapova. In the next couple of years, the Romanian player--who had her break-out year in 2013--found the pressure to win get to her in ways that impeded her progress. Halep is clever, graceful (every generation has a player of notable grace, and Halep is that player), strategically superior, and extraordinarily athletic. But her self-punishing ways, tied to her perfectionism, have held her back.

Halep came into this French Open, however, with a new attitude, and that attitude was made dramatically manifest when she pulled off a miracle in the quarterfinals, beating Elina Svitolina after being down a set and 1-5. It looked, for all the world, like the Romanian had conquered her demons and would finally collect her Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Halep won the first set 6-4, against risk-taker Ostapenko, who plays all-out on every shot, with the hope that all those errors, in the end, will be neutralized by all those winners (I call it "Kvitova-style"). At that point, the match looked like my expectation--that Ostapenko would hardly fade, but that the occasion would cause her to create more errors than winners. I was almost right: She hit 54 of each.

One of the most appealing things about Ostapenko is how quickly she gets over disappointment. She misses a shot, makes a face, then moves on to the next shot. She uses a poor strategy, waves her arms at her box, then moves on to the next strategy. So today, she lost a set, shrugged it off, and moved on to the next set. No big deal. She went down 0-3 in that set, and shrugged that off, too. Down 1-3 in the third? No problem. Is it the resilience of youth, or is it just the way Ostapenko is? Regardless, she cleaned her game up in the middle of the second set, dramatically changing her winner-error ratio, and won it 6-4.

The third set was just as tense as one would have expected it to be. In that set, Halep saw only two break opportunities, and she converted one. Ostapenko converted three out of seven. And as the set progressed, Ostapenko--who "should" have been falling apart mentally--entered the zone we've seen her enter throughout the last two weeks. She entered it, and she stayed in it, finding angles that are generally known only to players like Kvitova, Kerber--and Halep. She kept the ball in the court more frequently. She had grasped the idea that she could win the French Open, and this knowledge, rather than causing her to collapse mentally, only made her more deadly. She defeated Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

Halep had candidly stated, before the match, that she felt pressure, and she confirmed this after the match. Well, who wouldn't? We could analyze this for days: Did Halep cave mentally again, or was she just outplayed? I prefer to leave that analysis alone because I think the match was more complex than that, and because any seasoned player would have felt a bit squeamish going against the almost cartoon-like winner-smacking of the sometimes cartoon-like Latvian.

Ostapenko hit 299 winners in her French Open run. She is the first Latvian player to win a major title, and undoubtedly the first player to give up a professional ballroom dancing career in order to play professional tennis.

When she spoke with the press in Charleston, Ostapenko said that her favorite ballroom dance was the cha-cha-cha. In Paris, she said it was the samba. I'm wondering how she feels about the tango--the most fiery of dances, filled with emotion and gliding steps. The tango permits dancers to focus on individual steps, and to coordinate those steps, moment by moment, with the music and the mood of the occasion. Something tells me that Ostapenko can do a mean tango. In the meantime, we were lucky enough to watch her glide her way to a championship (my favorite championship) that most players will never achieve.

No comments: