Both Simona Halep and her coach Darren Cahill used the phrase being a ‘spectator on the court’ when they describe what it’s like facing Jelena Ostapenko’s shot-making at times.
The third-seeded Halep missed out on a chance to win her first Grand Slam title and rise to No1 in the world when she was stunned by the 47th-ranked Ostapenko in three sets on Saturday in the Roland Garros final.
Halep was up 6-4, 3-0, and was again up 3-1 in the deciding set, before she eventually succumbed to the barrage of winners off the Ostapenko racquet. The 20-year-old Latvian finished the tournament with a total of 299 winners through seven matches in Paris – 54 of which came against Halep.
“She played really well, all the credit. She was hitting very strong. At some point I was like a spectator on court. She deserved to win,” said Halep, who has now lost two French Open finals.
“Yeah, it’s tough. It’s a tough moment for me, but it’s gonna go away, I hope, with the time. I will keep working, because I really want to repeat what I have done this tournament. We will see what is gonna be.”
Halep, who fell to Sharapova in the 2014 Roland Garros final, entered the match against Ostapenko as the favourite. She had dominated most of the clay season, winning Madrid and reaching the final in Rome, and had experience on her side.
Ostapenko had never won a tour-level title, had never won a match at the French Open prior to this fortnight, and was the youngest finalist in Paris in 10 years. But none of that matter as the Latvian power-hitter overwhelmed one opponent after the other with her monster groundstrokes and carefree attitude.
Halep doesn’t believe she did much wrong on court and neither does her coach, Cahill.
“She played really well in the very tough moments for her when I was up set and 3-0. So I can say I was there, I was close, but again, I lost it. I cannot change anything, so I just have to look forward,” said the Romanian.
Cahill had briefly walked away from his partnership with Halep after Miami in March due to her negative attitude during matches but reunited with her prior to the clay season.
The Australian coach believes Ostapenko stepped up when she was down a set and break, rather than seeing it as Halep having a letdown.
“Simona didn’t do much wrong,” says Cahill.
“She played to the plan and she put the ball back that extra time, and Jelena just kept coming up with great shots. Jelena won this match, Simona did not lose it.
“So I think from our perspective, Simona can walk tall and hold her head up high. She had a wonderful clay-court season. This will be tough for sure but I think she will regroup and she’ll be a better player for it.”
Halep said during her on-court interview that she had been “sick to her stomach” with nerves prior to the match. A win would have made her the first Romanian woman to ever rank No1 in the world and just the second to win a Grand Slam behind her manager Virginia Ruzici.
She describes the 24 hours prior to the final as “tough”.
“I was very close to take the first Grand Slam and also No1 in the world. So it was a little bit of like emotional moment, but that’s it. I think everyone has it, and it’s good. So I want to have many more if it’s possible. That’s why I work 20 years and played 20 years to have this moment,” said the 25-year-old, who will rise to No2 in the rankings on Monday and will lead the Porsche Race to Singapore standings.
Halep looking away as Ostapenko receives the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen… the second time she’s the runner up here. pic.twitter.com/Q1VKwQJIV9— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) June 10, 2017
Halep has had issues before with being too self-critical and coming down hard on herself, particularly during matches. She has worked tirelessly with Cahill recently to rectify that problem and the worry now would be that a defeat like this in the French Open final would set her back emotionally and mentally. Cahill is optimistic that won’t be the case.
“I have faith that eventually she’ll get over it,” he says.
“It’s her second Grand Slam final, it’s obviously a wonderful thing to make it through to the final and it’s difficult to win them and that’s why they’re so special when you finally do win one. Many players before lost in multiple finals before they finally won and Simona is just going to have to dig deep and keep working hard, come back stronger and give herself another chance.
“And I have full faith that one of these days she’s going to hold one of these trophies.”
Halep’s status in Romania is huge and she shoulders immense pressure of expectation from her followers back home.
Scores and scores come out to support her everywhere she goes and Cahill believes she deals with it all impeccably well.
“I think she handles that like a pro. I don’t know anybody that loves their country more than she does,” he says.
“She loves going back there, she loves the people in Romania. I hope they get behind her, and I’m sure they will because they’re a passionate country, passionate people, she loves spending time there. If she’s a little bit down over the next week or so, they’ll certainly pick her up.
“I know she’s looking forward to getting home. It’s been a long clay-court season for her, she’s been going since straight after Miami, through Fed Cup, that was the first clay court event for her and she’s played pretty much every day all the way through to here. So she’s going to be tired, it will be a good chance for her to recharge the batteries, spend some time at home and hopefully the Romanian people will get behind her.”
In one way, Halep winning her first major and rising to the top of the rankings would have brought a sense of stability to the women’s game at a time when many of its powerhouses like Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Petra Kvitova have been absent.
But Cahill believes Ostapenko’s win and the women’s tournament in Paris this fortnight have been equally beneficial to the WTA.
“I think the whole tournament has been a plus for the women’s game,” he says.
“I think there’s been a lot of wonderful matches, not just from Simona’s side but certainly from the other side. And the fact that at the moment you can have a dart board and you can throw a dart and any number of women can step up and make it through to a final or win one of these tournaments, I think that creates a lot of interest in women’s tennis.
“And we just want to create some rivalries now. I’d love to see Jelena back this up, and continue to play well and then a lot of these top players continue to play against each other, create some rivalries, a lot interest in the women’s game. I think overall regardless of who won this match, it was going to be a good result for women’s tennis.”
As for Halep, she knows this loss will be painful for a while and admits she needs time to get over it. Rafael Nadal spent the second week of last year’s Roland Garros on a boat with his girlfriend, trying to forget the agony of injury that forced him to withdraw from the tournament after the second round.
Halep too must find her own version of that getaway.
“This one hurts a lot maybe because I am more – I realise more what is happening,” she says, comparing this defeat to the one she suffered to Sharapova in 2014.
“Three years ago was something new, so now I know. Hurts a lot, and I need time just to – I don’t know. To go away.”
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