Jelena Ostapenko’s two-month clay run has her two wins from the title

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The 19-year-old's statement win over Caroline Wozniacki could be a sign of things to come. (AP)

When Tuesday began, anyone looking down the list of players left in the French Open women’s draw might have believed that destiny was finally smiling on Caroline Wozniacki. After two years of hearing herself described as a “Slam-less No.1,” and many more years of answering questions about when she was going to win a major title, the 26-year-old suddenly had an opening. This time there was no Serena. There was no Vika. There was no Maria. There wasn’t even an Angelique. There was no one who, theoretically, she couldn’t beat.

Destiny kept smiling through the first set of Wozniacki’s quarterfinal with 19-year-old Jelena Ostapenko. The Latvian is a born ball-striker with terrific timing who can hit winners from any position. But that timing can be fragile, and the wind that whipped through Roland Garros in the early afternoon was playing havoc with it. Wozniacki, steady as she always goes, won the first five games and held on for the set, 6-4.

But the fact that, despite her greater experience and superior consistency, Wozniacki barely escaped a set she led 5-0, which should have let us know that maybe this wasn’t going to be her moment after all. A closer look at her head-to-head record with her opponent revealed that, if there was one woman Wozniacki didn’t want to face in Paris, it was Ostapenko. The Latvian was 3-0 in their three previous matches, and two of those meetings had come on clay this spring.

A closer look at Ostapenko’s record in general would also have revealed that it wasn’t just Wozniacki she’s been beating on clay this spring. Ostapenko has been building up to this run for two months. In Charleston, she won five matches to reach the final, and in Stuttgart, Prague and Rome, she won three matches apiece—some of of them were in qualifying, but when it comes to your confidence, any win is an important win. Ostapenko’s work with new coach Anabel Medina Garrigues of Spain was paying off on the surface.

By the time she had reached the third round at the French Open, Ostapenko was locked in. She was so convincing in her 6-1, 6-4 win over Lesia Tsurenko that Tsurenko predicted that she might win the tournament. Maybe those words made Ostapenko think, and believe, because in the next round she pulled off a surprising comeback from a set down against Sam Stosur, and she would go on to do the same against Wozniacki.

“In the first set conditions were really tough,” Ostapenko told Tennis Channel on Tuesday. “It was really windy and Caroline was playing really good and she didn’t miss anything.”

Ostapenko said this sentence in about a second and a half. If you’ve missed Ana Ivanovic’s no-breaths-needed speaking style this season, don’t worry, the Latvian, who turns 20 on Thursday, has you covered.

But if Ostapenko was channeling Ivanovic in her remarks, by the end of her quarterfinal she was channeling a teenage Monica Seles. Like Monica when she reached French Open semifinals as a 15-year-old in 1989, Ostapenko looked like she had entered a ball-striking trance—See Ball, Hit Winner appeared to be her strategy. Those winners came crosscourt and down the line, and when she didn’t put the ball past Wozniacki, she put it a few inches inside the baseline. Ostapenko, swinging freely but never overhitting, finished with 38 winners to Wozniacki’s six.

“Aggressive is my style of game,” Ostapenko said after her 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win, “and I was just trying to be aggressive. At the end of the match I felt quite confident.”

“I was playing really well,” she added with laugh of disbelief at how she closed out the match.

Even on her worst days, when the opponent is better and destiny is no longer smiling on her, Wozniacki always makes her opponents earn it. She may lose the match to you, but she won’t give it to you. You might think that attitude would take her farther on clay, but it remains her worst surface; this was just her second quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros in 10 tries. She’s the perfect illustration of the paradox of clay: You need to be able to defend, but you also need to be able to hit the ball with enough pace and weight so that it isn’t slowed to a crawl by the slow surface. Wozniacki can’t do that.

Ostapenko can. At 5-2 in the third set, she was one game from a dream semifinal berth, but her coach, Medina Garrigues, still hadn’t cracked a smile; she knew that Ostapenko couldn’t just run out of the clock on Wozniacki. Apparently, Ostapenko knew it, too. So she hit a forehand winner, a service winner, a backhand winner and, on match point, one more powerful forehand that Wozniacki couldn’t handle.

“In the end, I think I found my game,” she said.

If that indeed is Ostapenko’s game, she could roll all the way to the title. But her next opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, could also throw off her timing. The Swiss uses a wider variety of spins and angles than Wozniacki, and she’ll be playing in her second French semi.

Either way, it was fun to watch tennis lightning strike again on Tuesday, and see another new talent announce herself. Do we dare hope that Ostapenko can make it strike two more times?


Tennis Channel recaps Day 10 at Roland Garros:

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