A star is born in Paris
Jelena Ostapenko was just 19 and ranked 71 as she geared up for North America this March, but her antics on Europe’s clay catapulted her to the top 10 her 20th birthday.
Tennis has grown used to the emergence of confident, forthright teenagers on the men’s tour, but the young Latvian showed the same qualities: a fresh face, an attacking game, and the talent to down Caroline Wozniacki in Charleston and Prague, and Garbine Muguruza in Rome. But it was at the French Open where jaws began to hit the red stuff.
Ostapenko had played a lot of tennis before Paris: 18 matches, including eight three-setters in around a month, and was about to play five more on her way to the French title. Four of them were comebacks from a set down—against the likes of Sam Stosur, Wozniacki, and Simona Halep.
That last against Halep in the title match was a cracker—though a heart-breaker for Halep, who could claim No1 with the title. But in truth, it was Ostapenko’s semi-final against Timea Bacsinszky, that shone the brightest.
In my own words
Eighth of June: This has, over the years, become notable date in women’s tennis.
Lindsay Davenport: three Majors and a former No1, was born that day in 1976. Kim Clijsters: four Majors and a former No1, born that day in 1983.
Today, semi-final day 2017, two more women celebrated their birthdays, and they played one another to reach their first Major final. The unseeded Jelena Ostapenko turned 20 and Timea Bacsinszky—a former semi-finalist here—would be 28.
The exciting Latvian, Ostapenko, was aiming to become the first unseeded player to reach the French Open final since 1983, and the youngest in a Major final since Wozniacki in 2009.
And Bacsinszky had her own story to tell. Playing a game that is the polar opposite of Ostapenko’s, No31 Bacsinszky was hugely popular in Paris, not least for her variety, touch and creativity around a tennis court. This was her second semi in three years, but dating back to 2007, she had made the second round at Roland Garros four times, and when she missed two years with foot and ankle injuries, she came close to retiring from the sport.
But not only did Ostapenko and Bacsinszky share a birthday, the Swiss and the Latvian were also friends: the two had played doubles together at the end of last year.
After several breaks apiece in the first set, Ostapenko would serve it out, 7-6(4): that hour of pulsating tennis produced a combined 35 winners to 27 errors. Bacsinszky rose to the challenge in the second set to level, 6-3, but after another exchange of breaks in the third, Ostapenko broke once more, 6-3.
It had taken almost two and a half hours and, on paper, was painfully close for the Swiss, who trailed by just one point. But if fortune favours the brave, Ostapenko was the deserved winner. Yes, she made 45 errors, but she also made 50 winners, including 19 points at the net. No wonder the Philipp Chatrier crowd rose to sing Happy Birthday.
Ostapenko went on to beat Halep, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, the first player from her country to win a Major, but remarkably, she would afterwards pronounce that her favourite surface was grass. At Wimbledon, she did beat No4 seed Elina Svitolina, but was beaten by Venus Williams in the quarters. The Asian swing, however, assured her of a place at the WTA Finals after winning Seoul, making the semis in Wuhan and Beijing. So watch out 2018: a new force is coming.
Konta’s blew hot, but faced more Singapore blues
When Svetlana Kuznetsova won the last qualifying match of 2016, taking the title in Moscow, she also sealed the last place at the WTA Finals, denying Briton Johanna Konta.
This year, though, Konta looked secure as she raced through January to the Shenzhen semis, won in Sydney, and made the quarters of the Australian Open. Then came Miami, one of only four Premier Mandatories in the calendar, and Konta beat Halep, Venus Williams and Wozniacki to claim her biggest title. Indeed her comeback win over Halep, 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-2, in two and a half hours, was one of the matches of the year.
Victory took her to No6, and come the grass swing, she was once again part of one of the matches of the year, the Nottingham final against Donna Vekic: This time she lost from a winning start, 2-6, 7-6(3), 7-5, after another two and a half hours.
Choosing a packed grass schedule, Konta was the next week in Birmingham, then in Eastbourne, where she beat Ostapenko and Angelique Kerber to reach the semis, and finally at Wimbledon.
There, she went from strength to strength, beating Vekic in yet another thriller, 10-8 in the third set after three hours and 10 minutes. It would be another three sets against Caroline Garcia, before another superb contest with Halep, 6-7(2), 7-6(5), 6-4, to reach the semis for the first time.
To add to the drama, Halep only had to win it to reach No1—something she had failed to do by one match at Roland Garros—but Konta was beginning to play some of the most focused tennis of her career.
In my own words
This contest proved to be their closest, most intense yet. Halep came out with all guns blazing, and they blaze impressively for a woman of her 5ft 6in stature. She broke in the second game and survived a break point in the next to lead 3-0.
Konta had another chance to break in the fifth game, but in going for her big shots, she was firing as many errors as winners—three in a row to give Halep the hold. But the Briton grooved her serve for a love hold, and continued to strike beautifully on return of serve to break with a cracking backhand winner. And Centre Court came alive: by the time they reached the tie-break, the buzz had become a roar.
But whether through nerves or pressure, Konta made more errors… Halep had the set, 7-6(2), and had made just three unforced errors in the 80 points played.
The second set would be even longer, as each battled to give nothing away… The bustling Halep took the early advantage, but Konta sealed the set, 7-6(5).
Konta again looked vulnerable at the start of the third set, double faulted, hit another dreadful volley, faced break point and numerous deuces, but she came through, and got the crucial break in the fifth game… and the packed crowd could barely contain itself.
For Konta, this would mark the pinnacle of 2017. She would win just two more matches in Cincinnati, make four first-round exits, and then a foot problem plus a surge by Garcia closed the door on Singapore once again.
The Briton nevertheless enters 2018 with her usual positive mindset, a new coach, and ready to make it third time lucky.
Home talent gilds US Open: Sloane Stephens beats Madison Keys in ‘friendly game’
The US Open did not have everyone on side when the draws were made. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori were missing with injury. Former champion Marin Cilic lost in Round 2, and five-time champion Roger Federer fell in New York for the second time to 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro.
On the women’s side, the most prolific women’s Major champion of the Open era, Serena Williams, missed the tournament for just the third time in 20 years due to the birth to her first child. Victoria Azarenka had to pull out for personal reasons, defending champion Kerber lost in the first round, as did Halep.
But a theme was developing, one that would lift the spirits of the home nation. Come the final four women, and the line-up was replete with American players for the first time since 1981—the famed Navratilova/Evert era. And it had been a long time since the US title itself had been contested by two American women. Even the remarkable Williams sisters had not met in a title bout in New York since 2002.
And sewn into this all-American storyline were some golden threads. Venus, the oldest woman in the draw at 37, had already reached two Major finals this year, and she was aiming for a third. Her wonderful three-set triumph over Petra Kvitova lifted her to favourite status. But she was edged out of the final by her biggest fan, Sloane Stephens.
In the other semi, 22-year-old Madison Keys was reminding everyone of her huge talent almost three years after making the semis at the Australian Open. But what was most remarkable about the last two standing, these best friends, was how many difficulties they had overcome this year.
Stephens had also reached the Australian semis just before her 20th birthday, and like Keys, went on to reach the quarters at Wimbledon. But both arrived in New York with limited expectations, both recovering from surgery. Keys had wrist surgery in March (her second time under the knife), and Stephens had foot surgery in January.
But on their comebacks, Keys won in Stanford, Stephens made the semis in both Toronto and Cincinnati, and both made the final via some impressive competition. So it promised much, and it all started so well, with four good service games, 2-2.
Then Stephens began to impose herself on Keys, broke twice as errors started to flow from Keys, and in the space of half an hour, Stephens was a set up, 6-3. She would then race through the second, 6-0, as Keys’ movement became increasingly inhibited by her heavily taped thigh. It would take just an hour to crown the new Major champion.
However, if the tennis did not match the occasion, the half hour that followed more than made up for it.
In my own words
Rarely has there been a more heart-felt embrace at the net, as one friend consoled the other. And rarely have two finalists on such a stage sat side by side like a couple of mates gossiping in front of the TV on a Saturday night. They laughed, almost certainly sharing jokes they took care to hide from the cameras with their towels. It was sport and comradeship of the highest order, a credit to the players, their families and their teams.
And all that before they took to the stage and spoke. First Keys: “Sloane truly is one of my favourite people. Obviously I didn’t play my best tennis today, and Sloane was very supportive, and if I have to lose to someone today, I’m glad it’s her.”
Then Stephens: “Maddy’s one of my best friends on the tour, and I wouldn’t want to have played anyone else. I said to her I wished it could have been a draw and if it was the other way round, I think she would have done the same thing. That’s what real friends should be.”
But while these two sunny young women can expect more such days in the future, neither could reproduce their New York form through the rest of the year.
Stephens would not win another match, crashing out in the round robins in Zhuhai and losing both rubbers in the Fed Cup final—though the USA ended the year on another high with its first Fed Cup win in 17 years courtesy of two singles and a doubles win by Vandeweghe. The 25-year-old also reached the final in Zhuhai, and ended the year ranked higher than both Stephens and Keys, at No10. More reason for the USA to head into 2018 on a wave of optimism.
For the youngest, Keys, the year also ended with disappointment, and some concern, as she played and lost just one more match before pulling the plug on 2017 with more wrist problems.
Honourable mentions: Venus Williams
The name of Venus Williams has threaded its way through this entire 2017 review, from her title showdown against sister Serena in Australia to another near-miss at a Major title at Wimbledon, to her outstanding contest Kvitova in the US Open quarters, and on to her first appearance at the WTA Finals since 2009—making a run to the final.
Now age 37, she continues to defy age barriers and Sjogren’s syndrome, beating women who were barely an apple in their parents’ eyes when she was making her first Major final in 1997. This year, she reached not one but two Major finals a full eight years after her last, and made the semis in New York seven years after the last.
She also ended the season as the highest ranked American, man or woman, at No5. Yet there is no talk of retirement, as she explained at Wimbledon in July:
“There’s always other chapters in your life. I definitely lived this chapter. I’m still living it. I love this game… I don’t know how I’ll feel. I think I’ll always in my heart be a tennis player. There will be something missing always without the competition. But I’m not there yet.”
Honourable mentions: Petra Kvitova
It was just a year ago that one of the most popular women on the tour suffered a knife attack to her playing, hand, and after four hours of surgery, her specialist announced:
“The best-case scenario is that Petra will be able to return to the tennis court after six months.”
She did just that at Roland Garros. She even won her first match there before losing, in two tie-breaks to Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Kvitova, though, had expected little, and her joy at playing again radiated from her face and words in a packed press conference:
“I knew this day would come. I’m really happy the dream comes true… Of course, the hand doesn’t have that power and the strength yet, but I’m working on it.
“The tennis is a joy now. I mean, from the beginning when I hit nice forehand, I was so happy inside, and I was, like, Wow, it’s really great that I do have it still.
“I see life a little bit from a different angle… I had the time in my career when I was really thinking if I have motivation, if I want to play—I took the time off in 2015 when I didn’t play Indian Wells and Miami. But now suddenly I couldn’t play, and I really saw that tennis is very important in my life… And now I can just enjoy everything. Sometimes I just stand outside and see the sun and say, ‘It’s beautiful.’”
She went on to win a Premier on Birmingham’s grass a couple of weeks later and, still ranked far lower than her class, beat Muguruza to reach the quarters of the US Open. And there, she delivered, with Williams, one of the matches of the tournament, losing in a final set tie-break after more than two and a half hours.
Her final high-spot of the year was a semi finish at the prestigious Beijing Premier Mandatory, leaving her, and her millions of fans, with high hopes for 2018.
Now read Part 1 of WTA review
Men’s 2017 review, Federer impossible to ignore, but Dimitrov, Goffin, del Potro and more, stand tall, published in three parts:
Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3
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