Surprise! Ostapenko latest out-of-nowhere Slam finalist
PARIS — If Jelena Ostapenko wins the French Open on Saturday, she would accomplish something no tennis player has managed to do since, coincidentally, the day she was born 20 years ago: earn a first tour-level title at a Grand Slam tournament.
The last to do it? Gustavo Kuerten, who won the men’s trophy at Roland Garros on June 8, 1997.
Unseeded, ranked only 47th and never before past the third round at any major tournament, Ostapenko is about as surprising a finalist as there can be on this stage. That’s not to say there haven’t been others, of course, among men and women.
And the French Open, with its slow clay that can act as an equalizer — it dulls the impact of the biggest serves and strongest groundstrokes, and calls for different footwork from hard or grass courts — and its ever-changing weather conditions, tends to produce unexpected runs to the last weekend.
Kuerten, for example, was ranked only 66th in 1997. He would go on to collect two more French Open titles and was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But 20 years ago, he said Thursday, he came to Roland Garros hoping “to win one match.”
“One match was enough,” Kuerten said. “I never had passed the second round in any Grand Slams. I had played three in all my life. So this was a kind of run you normally don’t see.”
In the two decades since his triumph, men such as Andrei Medvedev (1999), Martin Verkerk (2003) and Mariano Puerta (2005) have been runners-up at the French Open. And Albert Costa (2002) and Gaston Gaudio (2004) actually won the whole thing in Paris.
Ahead of Ostapenko’s title match against Simona Halep in Paris, here a look at some other out-of-nowhere women’s finalists at Grand Slam tournaments:
FLAVIA PENNETTA AND ROBERTA VINCI, 2015 U.S. OPEN
That neither had been to a major final before was maybe the least remarkable thing about this matchup between two women from the southern heel of Italy’s boot who were childhood friends, then doubles partners and roommates as teenagers. It was the first time since WTA computer rankings began in 1975 that both U.S. Open women’s finalists were from outside the top 20. Pennetta, 33, became the oldest woman in the Open era, which dates to 1968, to become a Grand Slam champion for the first time — then announced her retirement to the world, right there on the court. Vinci, 32, would have been the oldest. The most unbelievable part of Vinci’s participation in the final was that she stunned Serena Williams in the semifinals, ending the American’s attempt to pull off a calendar-year Grand Slam.
ANASTASIA MYSKINA, 2004 FRENCH OPEN
Myskina was seeded sixth, but there was little reason to believe she would become the first Russian woman to win a Grand Slam title: Her career record at Roland Garros was 1-4 entering the 2004 tournament. But she beat major champions Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati and even saved a match point on the way to the final; it had been more than 40 years since a woman won the French Open after being one point from defeat. Myskina’s opponent — another Russian, Elena Dementieva — made it the first French Open final since 1981 with two participants making their debuts in a Grand Slam title match.
MARION BARTOLI, 2007 AND 2013 WIMBLEDON
There’s never been an unseeded woman in a Wimbledon final during the Open era. But Bartoli took place in a couple of title matches there that came close: In 2007, she was seeded 18th when she lost to Venus Williams, who was 23rd, making the lowest pair of women’s finalists in tournament history. And in 2013, Bartoli was 15th when she beat Sabine Lisicki, who was 23rd; that marked only the second time in the Open era that two women without a Grand Slam trophy met for the Wimbledon championship. Bartoli’s 2013 title stands out for other reasons. It was her 47th Grand Slam tournament, the most ever played by a woman before earning a championship. She had gone more than 1½ years without winning a title at any level. And she remains the only woman in the Open era to win Wimbledon playing two-fisted forehands and backhands.
FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE, 2010 FRENCH OPEN
A year after losing in the first round at Roland Garros, the 17th-seeded Schiavone became the first woman from Italy to reach a Grand Slam final — and then won the title, too, shortly before turning 30. It was her 39th major tournament and she’d never been ranked in the top 10, until two days after the French Open.
KAROLINA PLISKOVA, 2016 U.S. OPEN
Pliskova had never been past the third round in 17 previous appearances at majors, but she stunned Serena Williams in the semifinals before losing to Angelique Kerber in the final at Flushing Meadows last September. Pliskova would have reached a second Grand Slam final and faced Ostapenko on Saturday for the French Open title — plus jumped to No. 1 in the rankings next week — but she lost to Halep in the semifinals.