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Roland Garros 2020: Has former champion Jelena Ostapenko magically turned the clock back to 2017?

Jelena Ostapenko
Jelena Ostapenko
Mihir Gawade
ANALYST
Modified 02 Oct 2020, 00:10 IST
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2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko has announced her comeback to top form with a stunning win over second seed Karolina Pliskova in the second round of Roland Garros 2020.

It wouldn't be much of a reach to call Jelena Ostapenko's performance on Thursday her best of the last three years. It is certainly the most complete display she has put up in a while; each devastating winner that exploded off her racquet and away from Pliskova took us all the way back to her otherworldly 2017 run in Paris.

Admittedly, the Latvian's win wouldn't have come as a shock or even an 'upset' in the conventional sense of the term to most regular followers of tennis. A hard-hitter stealing a march over a higher-ranked opponent in a best-of-three match is never out of the realm of possibility.

But it was the utterly dominant fashion of Ostapenko's win that made everyone sit up and gasp in awe. The 23-year-old didn't give Pliskova, one of the title contenders, any room to catch her breath throughout the 69-minute encounter.

Jelena Ostapenko thoroughly enjoyed her time on the court today
Jelena Ostapenko thoroughly enjoyed her time on the court today

The Latvian has experienced a major downfall over the past two years, seeing her ranking slide down to Number 43 in the world. In fact, after her 2017 Roland Garros win, she failed to win another match at the tournament in the next two editions.

But this week, Ostapenko seems to have turned back the clock and regained her blistering touch. She is looking every bit the super-clean hitter that she was three years ago, and at the same time has also seemingly become a more complete player.

Jelena Ostapenko's one-hour dance on Chatrier

Jelena Ostapenko being one of the biggest hitters on tour is a known fact. But she didn't just outhit or overpower Pliskova; she outplayed the fourth best player in the world. The mercurial talent showed an incredible penchant for point construction, not usually associated with her, to win most of her rallies.

Jelena Ostapenko won 6-4, 6-2 in just 69 minutes, but what a glorious 69 minutes of tennis those were from the 23-year-old.

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Ostapenko did everything well in the match. She blasted 27 winners compared to Pliskova’s nine, and made just 19 unforced errors to the Czech's 25.

But there was much to admire about her game even aside from the numbers. The Latvian showed none of the shortcomings that have led to her decline in the past few years; she was focused, moved and defended well, and used drop shots intelligently. Even her biggest weakness, the serve, was surprisingly solid.

Jelena Ostapenko did everything well on Thursday
Jelena Ostapenko did everything well on Thursday

Despite the usual difference in the quality of their serves, it was Jelena Ostapenko who impressed more with her first strike on Thursday. The Latvian won 73% of her first serve points compared to Pliskova's 62%, and hit as many aces while making fewer double faults.

What made an even bigger difference though was Ostapenko's much superior return and rallying from the baseline. The former World No. 5 is probably the best returner of serve on a claycourt when she's on her game, and in this match she showed why missing the first serve against her is inviting doom.

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Ostapenko hit two back-to-back return winners off either wing to immediately regain the lead in the first set after having been broken back. That gave her a pivotal advantage in the match, which she never relinquished.

It was a total Jelena Ostapenko show from that point till the end. The Latvian hit winners at will, changed the pace and direction of the rallies with ease, and also showcased her touch with a slew of drop shot winners.

The biggest improvement that Ostapenko showed in her game on Thursday was her defence. For most of her short career, the Latvian has tried to hit a winner off almost every shot. But she seems to have evolved now, and realized the importance of elongating points when required.

In the few rallies that Pliskova gained control, Ostapenko undid the Czech's point construction with defensive slices or scrambling loops. Once she was back in a neutral position, she quickly transitioned from defense to offense and ended the point with a winner of her own.

Ostapenko left the Czech way behind in the rallies that lasted 5-8 shots, winning 22 out of a total of 34 points. She also won 4 out of 5 rallies that went beyond 9 shots, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger rather than going for too much too early.

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Another improved part of Jelena Ostapenko's game was her response to slices. In the past, she would often misjudge the spin and pace on a slice and just strike the ball hard, either netting it or hitting it out. But on Thursday the former ball-bashing queen handled slices brilliantly, carefully playing around them and eventually coming out on top.

Jelena Ostapenko seems to be back to her 2017 form
Jelena Ostapenko seems to be back to her 2017 form

Such was Ostapenko's dominance in the rallies that deep into the second set, Karolina Pliskova resorted to hitting the ball as hard as she could to try and overpower the Latvian. But that gave her little to no success.

Ostapenko also won the mental battle over the second seed. Midway through the match Pliskova seemed to lose all confidence in her service games once the ball came back. The Czech also didn't attempt to chase down Ostapenko's drop shots in the second set, appearing to have accepted defeat.

Jelena Ostapenko's current form arguably makes her one of the favorites to win the tournament. But the Latvian is known to be a streaky player, and can easily put on a performance completely opposite to the one against Pliskova in her next match.

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That said, the conditions this year do seem to suit her game. And it begs to be remembered that the only time Ostapenko won a main draw match at Roland Garros, she went on to win the title.

If Jelena Ostapenko wins another title in Paris this fortnight, she will hold one of the craziest statistics in tennis history. But even that won't hold a candle to the way she went back in time against Pliskova on Thursday.

Published 01 Oct 2020, 18:37 IST
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