First among equals as Simona Halep and Jelena Ostapenko eye French Open title
Halep targets the world number one ranking but fast-rising Latvian upstart threatens to crash the Romanian’s party
Simona Halep is targeting the world number one ranking in Saturday’s French Open final but fast-rising Latvian upstart Jelena Ostapenko threatens to crash the Romanian’s party as a first-time major champion will be crowned.
Halep marked herself out as a favourite for the title at Roland Garros after winning in Madrid and finishing runner-up in Rome, but a tumble in the Italian Open final left her with ankle ligament damage and cast doubt over whether she would play in Paris.
The 25-year-old has since dismissed concerns over her fitness and finds herself one win away from a memorable maiden slam title triumph that would also see her supplant Angelique Kerber at the top.
“It’s a big challenge, a big chance. I think I have the game. I have the mentality to win, but it’s going to be tough,” said Halep, who lost to Maria Sharapova in three sets in the 2014 French Open final.
“I learned many things during the years, not just after that final. Also semi-finals in Wimbledon. Then US Open against (Flavia) Pennetta before that match.
“My game is stronger, and it’s different. I think more about the game, and I play smarter, in my opinion, and also physically. I’m much better, stronger. Attitude better. I think I’m different player, and I’m much stronger than 2014.”
Third seed Halep stormed into the quarter-finals without dropping a set, but she faced match point against Elina Svitolina before pulling off a miraculous recovery from 3-6, 1-5 down to reach the last four.
Halep then beat Karolina Pliskova, who would have replaced Kerber as the new number one had she made the final, for the fifth time in six meetings to set up an intriguing clash with unseeded Ostapenko.
“I never played against her. I don’t know what to expect from her,” said Halep, bidding to become just the fifth player to win both the girls’ and women’s singles titles at Roland Garros.
“She’s much younger than me. Of course she has nothing to lose.
“But I can feel that I’m in the same position. I played once before here, and I was very close to winning it. If it happens this time, it’s going to be great. If not, I will have many years ahead to work and to play some more finals.”
Ostapenko’s run is all the more remarkable given her third-round exit at this year’s Australian Open represented her best previous grand slam performance.
She is the first Latvian to reach a slam final, going one step further than Ernests Gulbis in 2014 when a young Ostapenko was in his players’ box as he beat Roger Federer in the quarter-finals in Paris.
“When I came here, of course I didn’t expect I would be in the final,” said Ostapenko, who celebrated her 20th birthday on Thursday by overpowering Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals.
“But then, like, first match was a tough match, as well, and I won it. I think it kind of gave me confidence. Then every match I was playing better and better and I got my confidence, and I think it works pretty well.”
Ostapenko lost her opening match on her Roland Garros main draw debut a year ago, but the world number 47 is hunting a victory that would see her become the lowest-ranked champion in tournament history.
She is also hoping to win a maiden tour-level title at a slam – a feat lasted accomplished by Gustavo Kuerten at the French Open in 1997 on the same day Ostapenko was born.
“Tennis is not popular in our country because it’s a kind of expensive sport,” said Ostapenko, who will crack the top 20 after her breakout display in Paris.
“I think probably I will have a lot of attention when I come back home.”