Sometimes it starts with the most innocuous of mistakes, when the match seems all but over and the fans are hardly paying attention anymore.
Roughly an hour into the French Open final, Simona Halep led Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 3-0, and had break points to make it 4-0. With defense, depth and consistency, Halep had been patiently grinding away, while the Latvian’s low-margin, go-for-broke game appeared, finally, to have broken down.
By 0-3, Ostapenko no longer looked frustrated; instead, her errors inspired shrugs of resignation. “Oh, well, it’s not my day,” she seemed to be saying, and nobody would have blamed the 20-year-old for not winning her first major final. One more miss and the title looked sure to be Halep’s.
Except that it was Halep who missed. Nothing terrible, really; no easy shots memorably or horrifically botched; no blatant chokes forever to be replayed on Twitter. On one break point, Halep flipped a running forehand wide. On another, she was late on a down-the-line backhand and that too landed wide. But in those two shots the final—and French Open history—changed. Ostapenko held for 1-3 with a forehand winner. Now that she was on the board, she could think about working her way back into the match.
From that point on a pattern began emerge: Ostapenko, going for winners on the first chance she had—and sometimes when she had no chance—would miss just often enough to give Halep a lead in a game or a set. But whenever she absolutely had to have a point, Ostapenko found a way to connect. She finished with 54 winners and 54 errors, but the winners came when she needed them. Her shot selection was like The Simpsons’ description of alcohol: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
Ostapenko started by saving those break points at 0-3 in the second set. At 2-3, she saved two more, one with a backhand winner that skidded off the sideline, and another with a strong first serve down the T that caught Halep off guard. At 3-3, Ostapenko gave away two break points, then broke through on the third with a swing volley winner. And serving for the set, in a match that featured 14 service breaks, she suddenly held for the set with, you guessed it, three winners.
The key, according to Ostapenko, was to ignore the mistakes and have faith that an attacking mindset was the surest way to make her game come around. And why wouldn’t she have that faith? Over the last two weeks in Paris, the unseeded, 47th-ranked Ostapenko had endured countless ups and downs on her magical ride to the final, but here she was. Four of her six wins had come in three sets; why couldn’t it happen a fifth time?
“I was just trying to stay aggressive,” Ostapenko told NBC afterward. “I knew if I’m going to stay aggressive, in a couple of games I’ll feel my game and start to play better.”
In other words, the only way to get to the winners was to endure the errors.
Ostapenko was right, and the pattern held through the third set. Again, she got down early and appeared to be just a point or two from defeat. This time Halep went up 3-1 and served for 4-1. Again, Ostapenko broke with a return-of-serve winner, and held with a crosscourt backhand winner. In that game, at 30-30, she also came up with a rare ace down the T just when she needed it.
Then, at 3-3, fortune smiled on Ostapenko and gave her title run its final blessing. With Halep serving at 30-40, break point, Ostapenko hit a backhand that was heading wide, until it clipped the tape and somehow bounced back into the singles court for a winner.
With fate smiling on her, and Halep in a daze, Ostapenko ran away with the last two games. She finished the match the only way she could: on her first championship point, on the first shot, she aimed for the corner with a backhand return, and found it.
“Everything is amazing,” was how Ostapenko summed up her last two weeks. Her first career title is a Grand Slam title.
No loss could have stung more for Halep. After succeeding with a patient, grinding style for a set and a half, she couldn’t adjust and swing away when that tactic stopped working. Her misses at 0-3 in the second, those seemingly innocent misses that led to her downfall, reminded me of the way Guillermo Coria missed on his two match points in the 2004 French Open final. He was a little late on two shots he would normally make; it was as if the pressure of the moment had added an extra weight to his legs and his racquet. Halep’s mistakes, and her loss, felt the same. While the 20-year-old Ostapenko played with ease and freedom, the 25-year-old Halep, who was the tentative favorite throughout the tournament, was just a little too weighed down by nerves to hit out and play her best.
Always honest, she admitted as much in her gracious trophy speech.
“Maybe I wasn’t ready to win it,” Halep said.
“Let’s keep working,” she told her somber team in the stands. “Let’s believe.”
Let’s hope she can.
What should we hope for from Ostapenko going forward? More of the same, right away? While she’s here to stay, and a star in the making, there will be downs to go with her ups in the immediate future. But it’s too soon to worry about them now.
For now, we have the memory of a young player who wasn’t afraid to embrace the moment and take a major final into her own hands. In that final backhand return, which rifled down the line and touched down in the corner, we have the memory of what she did with that moment. It wasn’t perfection that brought Ostapenko there; it was having the faith that only by living with her flaws would she find her strengths. Her faith, and her bravery, were rewarded.
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