7 things we learnt from Roland Garros: WTA edition

Jelena Ostapenko, against all the odds, was crowned Roland Garros champion this afternoon, winning her first ever WTA tour title at the same time. After a dramatic and unpredictable tournament, we look at the seven things we learnt from the French Open.

1. The future of the WTA is bright

With no clear favourite ahead of the tournament, this year’s French Open was always going to be dramatic. The women’s tour has historically been lambasted for its weakness in the field, views which seem to have been heightened when taking Serena Williams out of the draw. But when the French Open kicked off with a fantastic return to tennis for Petra Kvitova, we were in for an absolute treat.

The loss of top seed Angelique Kerber didn’t matter, nobody rated her chances in the first place, so we always knew the top half of the draw would be open. Elina Svitolina, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova marked their place in the top five with excellent performances, and have made the race for the world number one spot exciting.

There were also some brilliant performances from some of the youngsters breaking into the top 50 that should be noticed. Of course, we’ll come to Jelena Ostapenko later, but let’s shed some light on American teenager Cici Bellis, who showed her potential with a stunning victory over last year’s semi finalist Kiki Bertens. It feels that Bellis has been on the tour for years so it’s easy to forget she’s only 18. Her run at the French Open saw the second time she had reached the third round of a Slam. Will she be able to show this form on the grass?

Another player to have her best Slam run was Belgian Elise Mertens. She has been making a name for herself in the tour this year, with a maiden WTA title in Hobart in January and making the final in Istanbul, so it was great to see her make the third round. Losing to Venus Williams is no disgrace and hopefully Mertens will use this to continue her rise up the rankings and into the top 20.

2. Jelena Ostapenko relishing the big stage

It’s amazing to think that Jelena Ostapenko had never won a WTA tour title before winning Roland Garros. Her poise, confidence and shot-making on the clay were those of an experienced thirty-something with multiple titles in the cabinet. Yet at just 20, the Latvian has shown us that she has the potential to be a world number one. And it may be closer than we think.

In the first round, Ostapenko lost the first set to Louisa Chirico. But she followed this up with confident straight set victories over Olympic Champion Monica Puig and tricky Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko. However, while someone of Jelena’s ranking and talent should’ve seen through these matches, nobody was expecting what happened in Round 4 and beyond.

Her performance against former French Open finalist and Grand Slam champion Sam Stosur was extraordinary. Hitting 46 winners, Ostapenko didn’t become distracted by Stosur’s medical timeout after the second set showing signs of a true force in the making.  Seeing off Caroline Wozniacki was less surprising given their head-to-head, but Jelena’s recovery from 0-5 in the opening set showed how much of a fighter she is on the court. The most impressive sign in that Quarter Final was serving it out to love. No easy feat.

The new Latvian number one does not have the most fans and her attitude on court has been questioned. Last year, she was accused of throwing her racquet at a ballboy by British player Naomi Broady. However, her performance and attitude at Roland Garros has surely earned her new fans.

The biggest challenge for Ostapenko will be performing under the weight of expectation. Her chances of a Wimbledon crown shouldn’t be dismissed, it is after all one of her best surfaces. But how will she cope with the pressure? Based on her performances in Paris, you shouldn’t underestimate the young Latvian.

3. French players finally come of age

It was nice to see the number of French players on the women’s side of the draw making progress this year. All five of the players who qualified outright made the second round and beyond, with Alize Cornet, Caroline Garcia and Kiki Mladenovic all making the second week.

It’s safe to say French tennis has a rich history on the women’s tour, but it was great to finally see this translating onto the big stage in Paris. Prior to the year, we hadn’t seen a French player make the Quarter Finals in six years, when former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli made the Semi Finals.

Out of the three that reached the second week, it was Cornet who had the most experience having reached the fourth round in 2015. She showed impressive form, getting past Timea Babos, Barbora Strycova and Agnieszka Radwanska, before ultimately setting up a soap-story clash with Caroline Garcia.

Nobody predicted Garcia’s run in Paris. But she seized her chance when Johanna Konta was eliminated in the first round. She followed a gruelling third round match with tricky Su-wei Hsieh (winning 9-7 in the final set), with a performance of intent against rival Cornet. And when she made the Quarter Finals, she showed just why Andy Murray once predicted she would be world number one, pushing Karolina Pliskova in two tight sets.

The biggest French hopes, however, lay with Kiki Mladenovic. The big hitter has enjoyed a terrific year and French hopes were understandably high. But was anyone predicting such an emotional rollercoaster?! In round one, she stumbled past Jennifer Brady, before brushing aside former finalist Sara Errani in round two. Despite this confident performance, she struggled in round three against Shelby Rogers, recovering from 2-5 down in the final set to take it 8-6. Mladenovic’s impressive victory over defending champion Garbine Muguruza was marred by crowd controversy, but her hitting and performance shouldn’t be overshadowed. Ultimately, a straight sets defeat to Timea Bacsinszky felt like an anti-climax, but the signs are there that Kiki could be a future Roland Garros champion. Undoubtedly she needs to work on her serve after hitting too many double faults. She may also want to show some love for the French language at her home event, shouting “Forza” and “Come on” throughout. But for now, she should go forward to the grass with confidence of securing a place in the WTA Finals at the end of the year.

4. Historic tournament for Arabic women

Luckly Losers have a history of making a mark in Paris. Who remembers when David Goffin reached the fourth round in 2012, taking the first set off Roger Federer in that match up? Well, this year saw another remarkable achievement and one that we must shout about.

Tunisian Ons Jabeur became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam. Stunned in qualifying by Miyu Kato (who subsequently lost 6-4 6-0 to Taylor Townsend in case you were wondering), Ons stunned the tennis world when she beat Dominika Cibulkova. Nobody cared that she lost to Bacsinszky in the third round as this achievement was so much more than being about tennis.

Making a mark on such a grand stage will hopefully see an influx of Arab talent coming through. There has only been one Arab woman in the world’s top 100 (Selima Sfar) and while Ons won’t reach this feat when the rankings are released on Monday, she has built a platform that could see her break more boundaries. Ons Jabeur has to be a beacon of hope to young Arab girls that they can make it to the big stages of huge international tournaments. Let’s hope we see more from the Tunisian number one in the future.

5. Angelique Kerber feeling the strain

It’s fair to say that it hasn’t been the best year if you’re a world number one. While Andy Murray put his sketchy form behind him at the tournament, you can’t say the same about Angelique Kerber. After receiving one of the worst possible draws, Kerber became the first ever top seed on the women’s draw to lose in the first round in the Open era.

After another disappointing tournament, Kerber has dropped to number 14 in the WTA Race and must improve on the grass where she has huge ranking points to defend at Wimbledon.

It’s important that we don’t forget all that Kerber achieved last year. Reaching three Grand Slam finals, and winning two of them, is no easy feat. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to prove her doubters wrong in Paris and must go into the grass season with the aim of winning at least one WTA title. Otherwise, 2017 could dampen what was a truly spectacular 2016.

6. Lost opportunities

The rise of Jelena Ostapenko has undoubtedly been the highlight of Roland Garros, but what about those who really missed out on an opportunity?

Surely Simona Halep will not have a better opportunity to win a Grand Slam. Leading 6-4 3-0 AD-40, her excellent defensive work was undone by the ferocious Latvian. Despite playing down her chances pre-tournament by saying there was a 50-50 chance she’d make round one, Simona will be devastated to have let such a huge lead slip. Only time will tell how quickly Halep will be able to bounce back from this disappointing defeat.

Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki seems to finally have found consistency in her game again. Clay is her weakest surface but to have reached the Quarter Finals shows she is ready to stake her claim as a contender at future Grand Slams again. Losing to Ostapenko for a fourth time, Wozniacki must be thinking what might have been, especially when she took the first set. Nevertheless, it has to be seen as a success for the Dane who will be looking at the US Open with great intent.

Venus Williams will also be disappointed to have fallen at the fourth round stage. The signs were looking good for Williams when she didn’t drop a set in her opening three rounds, and when she recovered in the opening set against Bacsinszky, she must’ve had her sights set on a first Roland Garros crown. However, a disappointing second and third set meant it wasn’t to be for Venus, who will be rubbing her hands at the prospect of adding to her Wimbledon collection.

Other players, like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur and Garbine Muguruza will be disappointed to have not reached the Quarter Finals and beyond. However, they will pick themselves up and look towards Wimbledon with intent.

7. Wimbledon draw wide open

What is clear from Roland Garros is that it blows the Wimbledon draw wide open. Grass is a completely different prospect and we will have a mix of players full of optimism and with something to prove.

Cibulkova, Kerber, Konta, Vandeweghe, Lucic-Baroni and Keys all underperformed this year but should all fancy their chances of a successful grass campaign. Then we have the returners: Sharapova, Azarenka and Kvitova, who will all be unknowns in the field and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Players like Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Timea Bacsinszky and Elina Svitolina will be hoping to take their good clay season onto the grass, while we have the exciting emergence of Jelena Ostapenko to look forward to!

Whatever you may think of women’s tennis, you cannot deny that the field is strong and anyone’s to conquer.

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Categories: WTA

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  1. Wimbledon’s over but the tour must go on – The Big Racket

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