Faces of Tennis Familiar and Fresh After 2017 French Open

The 2017 French Open delivered an unprecedented men’s champion and a blooming women’s titlist.

Updated: June 13, 2017 • 8:19 PM ET

Rafael Nadal captured a record 10th French Open title on Sunday.

Rafael Nadal was expected to win this year’s French Open. And boy did he, winning an unprecedented 10th French Open title at 31 years old. But in the women’s draw, all bets were off.


Sure there were favorites — Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep or Caroline Wozniacki — but they didn’t pan out. Instead, an unseeded kid, Jelena Ostapenko, stuck her nose out in front round by round and turned the tennis world on its head when she hoisted the Suzanne Lenglen trophy on Saturday. She had just turned 20 years old two days earlier. 


The disparity in age and outcomes has brought a fresh brush of success to tennis. Fans were rewarded and treated to the epitome of sport, as Nadal plowed through Stan Wawrinka on Sunday in straight sets. The stalwart Swiss with his hammering backhands and forehands couldn’t contain the Spanish bull. Nadal wouldn’t have it. Court Philippe-Chatrier was, and forever will be, his casa. 


A day earlier, ‘the little Latvian that could’ stepped all over No. 3 seed Halep, bashing away at the corners of the court. Halep’s predominantly defensive game slowly eroded, as did her momentum and any confidence she’d built up coming into the final. Ostapenko was too powerful, her strokes too flat and her abandonment to the task of the day too engrained. 


Nadal’s La Decima may never be repeated, winning 10 titles at the same Grand Slam as he has done on the red clay in Paris. He now owns 15 major singles titles, edging past Pete Sampras on the all-time list and landing just three spots from Roger Federer with 18 Grand Slams.  


The fact that two veterans of tennis, Nadal and Federer, have won the first two Grand Slams of the year has not fallen on deaf ears either. They remain the masters of the tennis universe. 


At the start of the year, though, they were thought to be on the outs. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively. Things would surely progress along similar lines as the season unfolded. Yet, those plans were broken. 


Murray has retained the top spot, with his semifinal performance in Paris. Nadal, though, has pushed a fumbling Djokovic out of the top two for the first time in six years, and the slide shows just how dominant the Serbian was. But Djokovic’s quarterfinal loss to Dominic Thiem, a guy Djokovic had beaten in their prior five meetings and in the 2016 semifinals of the French Open, sealed a year of results that painted a different picture. Djokovic was lost. 


He’d won Roland-Garros last year and held all four majors at the same time. Then, he went on to lose in the third round of Wimbledon, the final of the U. S. Open and Round 2 of the Australian Open. And, for six consecutive years, he’d battled his way past the final eight in Paris. Not in 2017. 


"The last couple of tournaments I have had some great tournaments and it was unfortunate to finish Roland Garros in this way," Djokovic said via BBC Sport.


Yet the fact remains that the usual suspects, headed up by Nadal and Federer, still lead the men’s game. The stability feels good, in a way. Expectations aren’t so rattled. Advertisers are plentiful. Contract negotiations run smoothly. 


The same positives could be drawn with Ostapenko’s unexpected triumph. Can this endearing woman lead the women’s game into the future? Will she muster the type and quantity of attention necessary to rejuvenate the women’s game, or get it televised more often than merely during the majors? 


Replacing 23-time Grand Slam Champion and soon-to-be mother Serena Williams won’t be an over-night job. Like Nadal and Federer, Serena has been the anchor. In 2013, she returned to the top spot after not having been No. 1 in two years. A glass table had fallen on her foot, cutting it severely. Soon afterward, she suffered a pulmonary embolism, and both incidents left her longevity in question.


Yet, Williams has persisted, solidifying herself at the top of the game for 319 weeks, third to Steffi Graf with 377 and Martina Navratilova at 332.


Obviously, Ostapenko must prove herself worthy as she advances through her twenties. But she exemplifies the power the Williams sisters brought to the game and knows she belongs on the big stage. After all, Ostapenko became the first woman in 39 years to win her debut-level title at a Grand Slam, the first unseeded player in 34 years to even advance to a final at Roland-Garros and the first unseeded woman to win in Paris. 


Ostapenko’s high-risk, high-reward style was her mantra in Paris, as it had been throughout her young career. She seemed to know no fear. And, when she chirped at her players’ box, where her mother and coach sat, upset by errant, or so she thought, line calls, she wiped out the momentary dip and moved on. That was a sure sign of mental toughness, an overused but entirely relevant term because all newcomers have game. Great forehands. Great backhands. Sufficient if not masterful or cranky serves. And, net games that wobble in the bigger moments. 


Ostapenko’s winner-take-all attitude and execution are perfectly suited for the manicured lawns of Wimbledon, which is a little more than two weeks away. She prefers grass and won the junior Wimbledon crown in 2014. 


One thing is certain, we’ll see more of her. Ostapenko’s dominance in Paris can certainly be equated to Nadal’s dominance at the same venue, although they are years apart and on opposite sides of the game. Their dreams, though, dovetail. They see opportunities and never hesitate to maximize them. 


Ostapenko hits the fuzz off balls. Nadal does the same, unless he massages one down the line with calculated bending spin that brings crowds to their feet. 


"I always had the possibility I could hit the ball really hard," Ostapenko said. "If I have a chance to go for a shot, I'm trying."


For the record, Ostapenko hit 299 winners through the seven rounds, the most of any player. She says she taught herself how to play hard, that no one taught her. Maybe that’s why she looks so comfortable and smiles so knowingly. 


As a reward for her remarkable achievement, Ostapenko jumped from No. 47 to No. 12 in the world rankings. She’s no longer a long-shot, by any means. The weight of the tennis world could be smack-dab on her shoulders. However, we think she wants it there. She needs it there. 


And, so does tennis.

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