When a 20-year-old unseeded Jelena Ostapenko pummeled her way through the French Open draw to lift a maiden Grand Slam trophy, the tennis world stood back in awe – not just of her achievement, but the manner in which she achieved it.
A player, who turned 20 midway through the tournament, ranked 47 in the world, and yet to win a tour-level title in her young career thus far, took out the likes of Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, firing 299 winners over seven matches, to clinch the 2017 Roland Garros crown.
That fortnight, Ostapenko looked almost careless in her shot-making, and fearless in her approach and delivery.
Nearly 12 months on, the Latvian is ranked No.5 in the world and has a new coach, David Taylor, on her team, working with her alongside her mother, Jelena Jakoleva.
The 45-year-old Taylor, who previously worked with Stosur and Ana Ivanovic, is amused by this younger generation of tennis players.
“Absolutely no respect for anyone in terms of tennis ability. People used to be scared and now that’s completely gone. It’s a striking difference in the generation,” explained Taylor to a small group of reporters in Rome last week.
“They walk on, they really believe they can beat top-10 players, and that’s the biggest change and they’re going to come out swinging.
“I think Aljona (another way to say Ostapenko’s first name) encapsulated all that at the French and she showed that. People look at that, parents… I was coaching Naomi Osaka at the time and said ‘hey, look at that’. So for sure that breeds this fearlessness in these young players.
“I think this generation is less respectful against everything, everything is possible now. Not in a negative way. They want everything so much quicker and I think that’s tennis also, they want to be top players straightaway. They don’t want to learn for two years, ‘no I want to be now’ and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Indeed there is a palpable impatience to Ostapenko, and it shows both on the court and off it.
A few weeks after she won at Roland Garros, she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. By autumn, she won a second-career title, in Seoul, and made back-to-back semis in Wuhan and Beijing.
Starting this season as an established top-10 player and a Grand Slam champion, Ostapenko admits she was struggling with the heightened expectations of her, but that struggle didn’t last long, because by March, she had reached the final of Miami – one of the biggest events of the year outside of the majors.
If you take away the 2,000 points Ostapenko earned for her French Open triumph, she would be ranked No. 11 in the world right now.
“I think she’s not a one-trick pony at all and she’s here to stay at the top for a long time,” insists Taylor.
“I think the most important thing about that playing style is playing how you must, not how you feel. If you’re nervous, don’t play nervous. If a second serve return is sitting there, you attack it, because that is your biggest chance to win the point. But if you do a lot of forward thinking or predictable thinking, you may play it short down the middle hoping the girl misses.
“I think this is the biggest thing and that’s why she won the French Open because she was able to play how she must.
“Now she’s going to be more nervous going in, more expectation. There was no expectation on someone 50 in the world ever winning a Grand Slam, it’s very rarely done in our sport. But I think she’s dealt with it so far incredibly well.”
Ostapenko heads to the French capital with a couple of quarter-final appearances under her belt on clay, in Stuttgart and more recently in Rome, where she lost in a high-quality three-setter to Maria Sharapova.
The Latvian loves the clay, and has the footwork required to master the art of sliding on it. She had been taking ballroom dancing lessons for years, and she added boxing to her training regimen two months ago.
“At the beginning of the year, it was very tough for me to start the year because I was the favourite in almost all the matches. But now I got used to that,” admits Ostapenko.
“And after playing the final in Miami, I think I’m doing much better. And I’m still not thinking about that I have to defend a title. I’m just thinking to go there and have like two great weeks and just to enjoy the time there.”
Ostapenko has a fiery personality that erupts just as forcefully as he groundstrokes. Taylor, who joined the team last December, isn’t trying to extinguish that fire in his pupil, but instead, use it to her advantage.
“I’ve never coached anyone probably so emotional,” said Taylor.
“Ana Ivanovic had this incredible love of the game, was very emotional, but a different time of emotion.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to give her more freedom but then temper that somehow in the right direction because I think this type of personality can sometimes work against you, and we’ve seen this in the past, but you never want to take someone’s personality away from them, because I think that’s probably their biggest asset.”
Ostapenko singles out her mentality as the one thing she feels has improved the most over the past 12 months. Taylor is trying to help her with her point construction to give her more ways to get to the right balls.
The Aussie concedes that joining a mother-daughter team is never an easy task but he has experience from his time working as a hitting partner for Martina Hingis, who was coached by her mother Melanie Molitor.
“It’s a very similar dynamic and the mum will always be the most influential person in her career, there’s no doubt, and I’m not trying to replace that. I’m trying to add,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s been difficult for sure and there’s a little bit of a language barrier. Aljona’s mum has been fastly improving her English so it’s been good. But the fact that they chose to bring someone else into this close-knit (team) shows they want to improve and open up.”
She’s only 20, but Ostapenko has been accustomed to being at the top in whatever age-group or level she was competing in. She was ranked No. 2 in the world as a junior and won the girls’ singles title at Wimbledon in 2014.
The biggest challenge for Taylor is probably convincing her to operate in a different way.
“She’s had so much success doing what she’s doing. She obviously wants to improve, that’s the first thing she told me on the phone. But someone who has had success at every level of tennis, biggest 14s tournament in the world, biggest 16s, junior Grand Slam, Grand Slam, it’s an incredible rise, and here’s someone coming along saying ‘hey we need to work on this’… ‘Why? I’m doing well’. Of course she is,” he says.
“But for longevity of the game and awareness, tactical awareness, there’s just so many more eyes on her. There’s a lot of good coaches out there and there’s so much information we have access to now, with SAP on board.
“I think I’m somewhat winning the battle and her mother is a fantastic help.”
For a player who has the talent and the game that is suited to every surface, Grigor Dimitrov has bizarrely never done well at the French Open.
The Bulgarian, who will be seeded No. 4 in next week’s Roland Garros, has lost in the first round in Paris four times in seven appearances and his record there is his worst of all the Grand Slams.
It’s the only major where Dimitrov has never reached the second week and his winning record there is a poor 42 per cent (5-7 win-loss).
Last year, Dimitrov matched his best showing at the French Open by reaching the third round before losing to eventual quarter-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta.
The 27-year-old Dimitrov, who is the reigning ATP Finals champion, has claimed eight career titles so far – one of which has come on clay in Bucharest.
His season on the red dirt in 2018 saw him make the semis in Monte Carlo, quarters in Barcelona, before making opening round exits in Madrid and Rome.
A former semi-finalist at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open, Dimitrov is hoping he can finally turn things around at Roland Garros this year.
“Yes that would be great, of course. I always want to do better than the year before in every tournament that I play,” Dimitrov said in Madrid this month.
“I know the French has never been… we never had a good relationship I thought so far but I think with the time now that has passed, I kind of started the season pretty well, on the clay, so I just want to keep on playing that way, keep on winning matches on the clay and of course when that time comes around I hope I can do better. It’s as simple as that. The rest, I want to control what I can control and if the rest doesn’t happen, then hopefully there’s another time for that.”
Dimitrov made huge progress last year, winning his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati before capping his career-best season by lifting the ATP Finals trophy in London.
He has formed a strong team with his coach Dani Vallverdu and while the Monaco-resident doesn’t have a clear explanation for his mediocre history at the French Open, he’s not spending too much time analysing the reasons behind it.
“There’s no point to go that deep into your thoughts – for sure it’s a big event but I don’t want to get too technical because there’s really no need,” said the fifth-ranked Dimitrov when asked about why he’s never done well in Paris.
“You prepare yourself, you get out on the court, give 100 per cent of yourself and see what happens. And I think in the previous years I wasn’t able to convert any of that time that I was there, and it’s just as simple as that. Why? I wish I could give you more answers for that. In that particular situation, I don’t want to over-think it. Every year and every tournament that I enter I’m very excited, very positive and I think you need to put a lot of that into every event that you play.
“You might have tough rounds, you might lose early, it sucks for sure, but at the end of the day you play tennis and the best thing in tennis is also that you always have a next week.”
The French Open main draw action begins on Sunday May 27. Qualifying action commenced on Monday and Tuesday’s matches saw Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat advance to the second round 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-4 over Slovenian Blaz Rola.
Former semi-finalist Ernests Gulbis also won his qualifying opener, 7-5, 6-4 over 38-year-old Frenchman Stephane Robert.
As the Premier-level Madrid-Rome double-header wraps up, the countdown for Roland Garros officially begins.
Both weeks in Spain and Italy were eventful and there were far too many revelations to ponder.
With the French Open less than a week away, here are 10 things we learned from the past two weeks of dirt action in Spain and Italy.
SVITOLINA’S A FINALS SPECIALIST
The Ukrainian once again heads to Roland Garros as one of the favourites having bagged a second Rome title in as many seasons.
Svitolina bageled Halep in Sunday’s final, and was ruthless in her delivery as she capped a week of victories over Petra Martic, Daria Kasatkina, Angelique Kerber and Anett Kontaveit with a straight-sets success over the reigning world No. 1.
Even more remarkable is Svitolina’s record in finals, which currently stands at 12-2. She has won her last eight consecutive finals and has now successfully defended a title for the third time in her career and second time this year.
The world No. 4 told reporters in Rome that a painful final defeat to Eugenie Bouchard in the 2012 Wimbledon junior tournament was a useful lesson that drove her to give her maximum in every title match she contested. It was an experience that continues to pay dividends six years later. Now can she go all the way in Paris?
Svitolina has never made it past the quarter-finals in a major but she is constantly improving. Last year’s inexplicable meltdown against Halep in the French Open quarter-finals that saw Svitolina lose from a set and 5-1 up against the Romanian was undoubtedly a painful experience. But considering how Svitolina has dealt with such mistakes in the past, last season’s Roland Garros could be just the lesson she needed to finally break through at a Grand Slam.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN FOR HALEP
Once again, Halep continues to perplex. Each time you feel the Romanian has taken strides forward, a hefty defeat comes along to pull her a few steps back. I still believe the Australian Open was a huge turning point for her as she showed the world how much fight she has in her.
But as many people have pointed out, between those courageous performances from Halep, there are also some pretty significant beatdowns she has taken.
Some would argue that that is the nature of a sport like tennis – you win some, you lose some, it’s a case of match-ups, the variables are too many to quantify and the women’s field is closely packed with too much talent on display within the world’s top-50.
But it’s worth noting that Halep has received either a bagel or a breadstick in seven different losses in the past nine months. Sometimes such lopsided defeats have been a result of injuries – another normal side of any sport that just seems to strike Halep a little too often.
Halep showed great heart in Aus.
But too many of these:
1-6 1-6 vs. Svitolina (Toronto)
1-6 0-6 vs. Muguruza (Cincinnati)
2-6 1-6 vs. Kasatkina (Wuhan)
0-6 2-6 vs. Wozniacki (Singapore)
3-6 0-6 vs. Osaka (IW)
4-6 1-6 vs. Vandeweghe (Stuttgart)
0-6 4-6 vs. Svitolina (Rome)
— David Law (@DavidLawTennis) May 20, 2018
Will this Rome final loss to Svitolina, for a second year in a row, dent Halep’s French Open chances? It didn’t really affect the Romanian last season, where she went on to make the final in Paris, before she was stunned by an on-fire Jelena Ostapenko.
Still I will leave you with this stat: Halep has lost six of her last seven finals.
As Svitolina has been showing a knack of turning the screw each time she reaches a final, it seems that Halep is developing a habit of lifting her foot off the gas pedal when she’s at that stage.
MARIA RISES IN ROME
Quarter-finals in Madrid and semi-finals in Rome mean that Maria Sharapova gets to return to the top-30 for the first time since she came back from her doping ban 13 months ago and she’s also snagged a seeding spot in the Roland Garros main draw.
Same time last year, Sharapova walked away from Rome injured and was denied a wildcard for the French Open.
It’s now 12 months later and the Russian five-time Grand Slam champion seems to be in a far better place.
In Madrid, she made her first Premier Mandatory quarter-final in three years before losing to Kiki Bertens while in Rome, she was at her grinding best, battling through three-setters against Ashleigh Barty, Dominika Cibulkova and Ostapenko before falling to Halep in three.
A gritty Sharapova is always the most dangerous version of the 31-year-old.
3.11hrs on court. Loved every bit of it. Thank you Roma for the ❤️ pic.twitter.com/3d3UfK8PBy
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) May 18, 2018
MAKE WAY FOR THE TALL BIG-HITTERS
We’ve seen powerful players enjoy more and more success on clay in recent months, even ones who are over 180cm tall and aren’t necessarily natural movers on the surface. Karolina Pliskova won nine clay matches in a row, taking the Stuttgart title before reaching the semis in Madrid while Petra Kvitova is on an 11-match winning streak on the red dirt with trophies clinched in Prague and Madrid.
Pliskova made semis last year at Roland Garros, while an all-out attacking Ostapenko became a Grand Slam champion there a couple of days later.
If the last few weeks on clay are anything to go by, don’t exclude the power-hitters from your list of French Open contenders!
— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) May 12, 2018
Ranked a career-high No. 25, Kontaveit heads to Roland Garros with a 10-3 win-loss record on clay over the past six weeks. She’s made semis in Stuttgart and Rome, with her list of scalps in the latter looking like this: Coco Vandeweghe, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki. Seeded and in-form, Kontaveit is a player many will want to avoid in Paris.
Anett Kontaveit claimed her second consecutive Top 10 win, defeating Caroline Wozniacki to reach the @InteBNLdItalia semifinal!
— WTA (@WTA) May 18, 2018
QUESTION MARKS AROUND MUGURUZA
For a second time this season, Garbine Muguruza lost a clash after holding match points. She did it in her defeat to Daria Kasatkina in Dubai last February, and it happened again in her loss to Daria Gavrilova in Rome last week. Muguruza squandered a 4-0 lead in the deciding set of her Rome opener against Gavrilova and is now 2-3 since she won the title in Monterrey early last month.
You’ve got to wonder why the Spanish two-time Grand Slam champion keeps switching off like that?
PROGRESS FOR PENKO
Ostapenko’s three-set defeat to Sharapova in the Rome quarters is arguably the match of the tournament. And while her clay season so far has been patchy (QF in Stuttgart, R1 in Madrid, QF in Rome), the reigning French Open champion feels her runner-up showing in Miami helped her regain her confidence and she’ll obviously be a threat in Paris.
BERTENS AND MERTENS
A title win on green clay in Charleston and a runner-up showing in Madrid (beat Wozniacki, Sharapova, Caroline Garcia) make Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens a genuine contender at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, Belgium’s Elise Mertens has a clay season that consists of 13 consecutive match wins that included title runs in Lugano and Rabat. She had to pull out of Rome with an illness but if she’s healthy in Paris, we can expect another strong showing from the Australian Open semi-finalist.
SAKKARI STEPS UP
Greece’s Maria Sakkari is having a memorable clay campaign, reaching semis in Istanbul and ousting Bertens and Karolina Pliskova in Rome en route to the last-16. Her reward is a place in the world’s top-40 for the first time in her career. The Spartan warrior could be a dark horse in Paris.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO GELATO
Before she handed Halep a walkover in the Rome third round due to a rib injury, Madison Keys claimed two solid wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Donna Vekic.
The world No. 13, who is a former Rome finalist, recently split with one of her coaches, Dieter Kindlmann, due to a breakdown in their communication. Keys was flying solo in Rome, and said she was getting scouting advice and tips from her boyfriend, ATP player Bjorn Fratangelo.
While her relationship with clay continues to be complicated, Keys did come up with one of my favourite lines in Rome, when discussing how she feels about the city and the tournament.
“It kind of helps in the sense of it’s like you have a good day, you go get gelato, you have a bad day, you go get gelato. At the end of the day you’re going to have gelato,” laughed the American.
Indeed, all roads lead to gelato!
— Mutua Madrid Open (@MutuaMadridOpen) May 2, 2018