FRENCH OPEN: JELENA OSTAPENKO AND THE PURITY OF SPORT

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Photo by Art Seitz

Bill Simons

PARIS –

She has a big game, but little fear. Jelena Ostapenko was an unknown and is now a star. She’s the 100-to-1 shot who, on this happy Parisian afternoon, lifted a shiny French trophy.

And in the end, it was old Jimmy Connors who got it right. During his fabled 1991 US Open run he yelled into a camera, “This is what they want, so this is what they’ll get!”

Tennis long has wanted a new face – anybody, please! Enough with Serena and Maria, Kuznetsova and Kvitova – how ’bout someone fresh?

Well, fresh we got – Latvian fresh.

French Open champion Ostapenko had never reached the second week of a Grand Slam. Goodness, she hadn’t even won a match at Roland Garros before this year –and she’d never won a tournament.

Her ranking, No. 47, was a work in progress. Tennis nerds had heard of her – she’d reached the Charleston final. They recalled that she was heard on camera calling a Wimbledon warm-up event a “stupid tournament.” And she’d sparked a spicy on-line brouhaha when her racket hit a ball boy. She was perhaps best known for her loopy adolescent facial expressions and Andy Murray-like self-abusing monologs.

But now the Latvian beamed. Is her quirky giggle the best in the game? After all, this day proved to be a triumphant celebration of sporting purity – the purity of youth – free and unburdened. “Will she hit like that when she’s 28?” asked a skeptical Timea Bacsinszky, who lost to Jelena in the semis.

Today there was an essence of glee. “I still cannot believe it,” said the triumphant Latvian after her 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win. “It was my dream.”

In this kid, you couldn’t miss a certain quintessential athletic excellence. Her shots astound – lean in and blast. Martina Navratilova said Ostapenko’s strokes remind her of Lindsay Davenport’s. Her forehand is faster than Andy Murray’s – how can that be? She hit more winners than any of the men’s semifinalists.

Her shots not only have shocking power. They’re heavy and they have serious angles. “That’s one pinball wizard,” said a voice in the press seats. This is clay court tennis. Rallies should linger. But, with Ostapenko, it’s “Big bang, hit done. Big show, here we go,” said broadcaster Gigi Salmon.

At the outset, the kid came out of the gate and hit three down-the-line backhand winners to grab the first game – pure shock therapy. “Here I am, world!” she seemed to shout. “You weren’t really paying attention when I fought through the draw and beat three seeds (San Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Bacsinszky). Well, pay attention now!”

We did.

But we soon also saw her shots flying long as Simona Halep – a clay-savvy veteran who would have become No. 1 if she had won – took punches and waited for the go-for-it gal’s strokes to implode, playing rope-a-dope.

The match had a maddening ping-pong design. Ostapenko imposed with her incredible shots and would grab leads. Then her focus and execution would wane. She’d shrug. She’d curse her fate. She’d flail at no one in particular. Her body language protested loudly. When she wasn’t pounding her racket into the clay, she displayed an array of hand gestures which (dare we say) were right out of the Melania Trump school of dismissive flicks?

All the while, Halep did her thing: run, defend, get into position, make that newbie hit one more shot, wait for errors. And errors came in torrents. Halep grabbed the first set 6-4 in 34 minutes and as burly Romanians chanted loud, took a 3-0 second set lead. Her “let the kid implode” strategy seemed like a sensible formula for victory. “Done deal,” one thought. After all, Ostapenko had lost all three of her previous finals, and semifinalist Karolina Pliskova assured us that she’d “bet everything I have on Simona.”

But then the fickle and oh-so-pure beauty of sports kicked in. With Simona already smelling victory at 3-0, she held three break points to go up 4-0.

On the brink of defeat, Osapenko decided to just relax and simply enjoy herself. After all, her new Spanish coach, Anabel Medina Garrigues, promoted an affirming mantra: “Believe in your game, go for it, move your legs, no complaints, play your game.”

And a funny thing happens when tennis players relax. They don’t always win, but they swing free and they tap into their core talent and the essence of their games.

Jelena unleashed yet another brilliant crosscourt forehand, saved the three breakpoints, prevailed in the must-win game, won four straight games and eventually grabbed the second set 6-4.

Now the once-patchy match reached high levels of play, and, despite periodic lapses from Jelena, it was clear there was a different dynamic.

Jelena was clearly the stronger player. Halep’s coach, the celebrated Darren Cahill, later told IT that Ostapenko “has great ball-striking ability…When she’s hot, you just become a spectator. And if you give her angles, she can just knock the ball down the line and open the court pretty well. You just have to hang in there and hope she misses enough balls.”

But Ostapenko had a purity of mission. The prevailing champions of our era were absent. This was her moment –  and she didn’t blink. The young talent who’s said to be a tad offbeat and in her own world just kept on blasting, and took full advantage of a distinctly quirky let cord at a big moment. Eventually, when she hit one final triumphant backhand, the tennis world became her oyster.

Just two days after her 20th birthday, the first Latvian Grand Slam Champion ever became the first unseeded player to win here since 1933, and the youngest Grand Slam winner since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004.

More to the point, this clearly was a moment of renewal for the women’s game, which has suffered recently from scandal, controversy and a certain sameness. This was the purity of sport – pure renewal.

Thank you, Jelena.

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