Jelena Ostapenko arrived at the French Open with one of the most peculiar tournament records any player will ever attain. Of the five times she had competed at Roland Garros, four times she fell in her first round. The only time she had managed to clear the first hurdle, she won the whole thing.
Clearly, she likes to make her wins count. She did so again on Thursday by eviscerating the No 2 seed, Karolina Pliskova, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the third round with one of the best performances of her career.
Four years ago Ostapenko burst into the spotlight as a vicious, inconsistent shotmaker whose strokes could touch every line or collide with the back fence on any given day. Her vision of how the sport should be played was clear: you take risks, create your own opportunities and attack the ball, or you are nothing.
During defeats Ostapenko would sulk and disparage those who outmanoeuvred her with simple consistency. “She doesn’t play at all,” said the then teenager to her coach during her straight-sets defeat by Agnieszka Radwanska, world ranked No 4, in 2016. “She plays like an amateur. Our amateurs play better in Latvia.”
Ostapenko’s performance in the 2017 Roland Garros final has since defined her. Ranked 47th and trailing Simona Halep 6-4, 3-0 and down advantage on her own serve, an absurd running forehand down-the-line winner became the catalyst for an astonishing comeback. By the end of the encounter, she had rendered the best clay-court player in the world a spectator.
“That was three years ago and I was fearless, nobody really knew me but now players get to know me more,” Ostapenko said. “They know how I can play. They probably know how to play against me.”
Although the crowning moment of her career, Ostapenko’s Roland Garros win was appalling for her development. By 2019 she had fallen from fifth to 83rd in the rankings. She says it was “tough to deal with all this pressure”, a challenge heightened by her high-risk game.
Ostapenko started to turn things around only at the end of last year and against Pliskova her gradual progress accelerated. The world No 43 dominated the No 4, never looking back after establishing a 3-1 lead and overwhelming the Czech with her violent combination of power and accuracy off both groundstrokes. She ended with 27 winners to Pliskova’s nine. Her performance showed that those with the raw power to hit through the slow conditions can succeed this year.
Even more notable than her ball-striking were the ways her game has evolved. Throughout the match Ostapenko thoughtfully constructed her points rather than obliterating every forehand. She showed impressive defence, retrieving with effective slice forehands and extending points instead of blasting out of them. Faced with Pliskova’s pedestrian movement, she peppered her opponent with delicate drop shots. “Girls are expecting me to always hit the ball so strong,” she said, smiling.
Ostapenko’s growth contrasted sharply with stagnation across the net. Pliskova has not fallen out of the top 10 in four years and she is one of the most consistent players in the sport with one of the highest base levels but on the big stages she always eventually faces a quality player who feels the moment and elevates above her.
On Thursday that opponent was Ostapenko. When the Latvian marched to the title three years ago, she became known and loved for her rapid, breathless speech and for how young she seemed, even for a 20-year-old. Now she is more considered and the growth in her game is reflected in how she comports herself off the court.
“The world doesn’t stop with winning only one grand slam,” she said. “Of course I want to achieve more and I want to be back in the top 10. Step by step.”
Novak Djokovic eased into the third round with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win over Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis and will face the lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galá. The No 9 seed, Denis Shapovalov, a breakout young performer this year, twice failed to serve out his match before losing 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 8-6 to Roberto Carballés Baena after hitting 106 unforced errors in five hours.