Challengers to Ostapenko's Throne

May 28 6 min read

12:29 pm

The clay season is heading towards its climax as we approach the second slam of the year. Played on clay, Roland Garros is considered to be one of the most physically demanding sporting events in the world. Last year, while Rafael Nadal claimed his 10th title at the clay slam, the women’s section saw an unseeded 19-year old Latvian storm into the finals, defeating number 2 seed Simona Halep 4-6 6-4 6-3 to mark the rare feat of winning a major as the first ever title of her professional career.

Ostapenko showed the aggression of a champion throughout the tournament, defeating four seeded players en route to the title. Her groundstrokes have tremendous power and pose as a huge advantage for her on clay. The Latvian’s average forehand speed last year was 3 mph faster than that of three-time grand slam champion, Andy Murray. On clay, she has won 73% of her matches. However, after the 2017 French Open, Ostapenko hasn’t quite made a mark on the circuit and has managed to win only one International tournament, which took place in South Korea. This year, her most impressive run was at the Miami Masters where she finished as the runner-up.

Ostapenko reached the quarter-finals at Stuttgart and Rome but fell prey to Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round at Madrid. After one year, Ostapenko finds herself in the Top 5. The 20-year old has a slam to defend and with her ‘See ball, hit winner’ strategy as described by Steve Tignor, it might be a challenge for the rest of the ladies’ field to dethrone the defending champion. However, even for someone like Ostapenko who is constantly compared with Monica Seles, defending a title which involves seven matches over a gruelling fortnight is an uphill task. This year, the challenges are tougher for the Latvian as we take a peek into the five players who may pose as an obstacle between Jelena Ostapenko and the Suzanne Lenglen trophy.

1) Simona Halep

Current World No.1 and last year’s Roland Garros finalist, Simona Halep has played Ostapenko on two occasions. The first meeting was the aforementioned Roland Garros final last year where Halep lost in three well-fought sets. In that match, Ostapenko hit 53 winners and 54 unforced errors to Halep’s eight winners and 10 unforced errors - clearly highlighting Ostapenko’s fearless style of play. They met again later that year in the semi-finals at Beijing and this time around the Romanian won in straight sets 6-2 6-4. Despite their single encounter on clay, Halep has been the more consistent player on the dirt this year, reaching the quarter- finals at Stuttgart and Madrid and finishing as the runner-up at Rome. If we are in for a re-match for last year’s final, Halep might have a better shot this time around.

2) Elina Svitolina

The present World No.4 and the champion of the Premier event at Rome in each of the last two years, Elina Svitolina is yet another challenger to Ostapenko. Svitolina stands second in the title leaders this season by lifting the championship trophy at Brisbane, Dubai and Rome. Svitolina’s clay season got off to a shaky start, going 2-2 before entering the Italian Open. However, after defeating Daria Kasatkina, Angelique Kerber, Anett Kontaveit and Simona Halep in the same tournament, the Ukrainian No.1 is well prepared for Roland Garros. Svitolina lost in the quarter- finals at the French Open last year but is now seeded a spot higher due to her consistent performances ever since. She has a negative head to head against Ostapenko, losing both their encounters. Ostapenko has beaten Svitolina in straight sets in both their matches (Wimbledon 2017 & Miami 2018), however, three of those four sets went to a tie-break. If they are to meet this year at Roland Garros, it would be their first meeting on clay.

3) Karolina Pliskova

Karolina Pliskova has won nine of her 11 lead-up matches across three tournaments for her preparations for Roland Garros. The former World No.1 won the event at Stuttgart, reached the semi-finals at Madrid and was knocked out in the second round at Rome in a match that involved Pliskova attacking the chair umpire’s seat with her racquet following a contentious line call. A semi-finalist at Roland Garros last year, Pliskova looks primed yet again for a deep run in the French Open. She has played the defending champion on four occasions and leads their head to head 3-1. She won their only meeting on clay recently at Stuttgart where she defeated the Latvian 5-7 7-5 6-4. The big serving Czech is certainly an opponent that Ostapenko might hope to not see in her half of the draw.

4) Petra Kvitova

Petra Kvitova’s story has been an inspiration to the masses who have followed the Czech’s tragic incident last year. After being stabbed on her left hand (playing hand), Kvitova knew it would take a herculean effort to return to dominance at the professional level yet again. But the two-time Wimbledon Champion has hustled her way back and holds the distinction of winning the most titles this season (4) thus far. Kvitova has had an intense rivalry with Ostapenko as they are tied at 3-3. Ostapenko won their first two matches in three sets at Doha and Birmingham in 2016. The Czech replied strongly by winning their next three contests in straight sets. Their latest matchup took place at the Miami Masters where Ostapenko won 7-6 6-3 to tie the head to head record. The two ladies have never met on clay and if it is to be, then a clash at Roland Garros would serve as a nice judge to prove who deserves to hold the H2H advantage.

5) Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova - a two-time champion at Roland Garros - has returned to the Top 30 after facing a doping suspension. The former World No.1 has a whopping 83% win rate on clay and is looking better and better after every passing tournament since her return. This clay season, she began with an opening round loss to Caroline Garcia at Stuttgart but made it to the quarter- finals at Madrid and the semi-finals at Rome. In Rome, she defeated the defending Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-7 6-4 7-5 in their only meeting to date. Sharapova’s killer

instinct to win matches still stays rock solid and the Russian can inflict some serious damage in the draw considering her favoured turf and gradual convergence towards her peak form. Even though she prefers hard and grass to be her favourite surfaces to play on, Ostapenko states that the clay at French Open is slightly different as it is faster than other clay courts. Moreover, Ostapenko was instrumental in helping Latvia defeat Russia at the Fed Cup, which was played on clay. Adding to this triumph she said that after the win over Russia, clay might become her favourite surface. Ostapenko has received immense praise from leading journalists and experts for her boisterous groundstrokes, high-risk game play and the willingness to finish a point as early as possible.

“Ever since I started playing, I’ve wanted to really go for it. I really liked to win points by myself and not just wait for my opponent to miss. I think I was like that from the beginning. I don’t think you can teach those things.” - Jelena Ostapenko