Top 5 WTA Surprises of 2017: #1 - Jelena Ostapenko's rise to the top

Starting this week, VAVEL USA’s Don Han will be counting down the top 5 biggest WTA surprises of 2017. At the top of our list: Jelena Ostapenko's breakthrough year which saw her claim her maiden Grand Slam trophy at the French Open while also making her debut at the WTA Finals, ending the year inside the top-10.

Top 5 WTA Surprises of 2017: #1 - Jelena Ostapenko's rise to the top
Exposed to the limelight: Jelena Ostapenko ensured that people remembered her name with her successes this year | Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images AsiaPac

2017 produced two new Grand Slam champions — and Jelena Ostapenko is one of them. The young Latvian had not broken into the top-30 before the start of this year, but the “WTA Most Improved Player of the Year” certainly deserved her award after ending the year inside the top-10, earning her maiden Grand Slam title along the way. Without a doubt, Ostapenko’s rise has been one of the biggest surprises of 2017.

Coming into 2017

Ostapenko had only entered the top-100 nearing the end of 2015 before an impressive run to the final of the Qatar Total Open exposed her to the limelight. As a result, she entered the top-40 but was always hanging onto the borderline, ending 2016 as the 44th-ranked player together with a poor six-match losing streak.

Early results in 2017

Some notable results for Ostapenko in the early stages of the year featured a semifinal appearance at the ASB Classic and another last eight run in Acapulco. She failed to defend her finalist points in Doha, causing the Latvian to fall to the 71st spot at a point in time.

Where her Roland Garros campaign all started: A tough first-round win against Louisa Chirico | Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images Europe
Where her Roland Garros campaign all started: A tough first-round win against Louisa Chirico | Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images Europe

Where it all started

Clay seemed to be the haven for Ostapenko as she started her clay-court season on the best possible note. Going into the Volvo Car Open as the world number 66, the Latvian wasn’t on the bookies’ list entering the tournament. However, she defied the odds and sprung a surprising run to the final after upsetting Caroline Wozniacki and Australian Open semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni along the way. Despite so, she was outclassed by Daria Kasatkina in an all-teenage final, falling 3-6, 1-6.

Due to her low ranking at that point in time, Ostapenko even had to qualify for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and the Internazionali BNL D’Italia while also producing a semifinal run at the Prague Open, ousting Caroline Wozniacki yet again in a thriller.

Six consecutive wins, and a Grand Slam final for Jelena Ostapenko | Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
Six consecutive wins, and a Grand Slam final for Jelena Ostapenko | Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

Incredible and unexpected run in Paris

All these preparation work had one main purpose: to perform well at Roland Garros, the second Grand Slam of the year. Ostapenko was never expected to do well, considering that she was the world number 50 at that point in time while her pre-tournament odds to claim the trophy was 100-1. Furthermore, her Paris campaign had a shaky start, with Ostapenko having to dig deep to defeat the tricky Louisa Chirico in the opening round. Needing three-sets to beat the 128th-ranked player in the world in the first round almost certainly reflected that Ostapenko is definitely not a contender for the title — but what she did after will give you some goosebumps.

Hitting fearlessly to defeat Monica Puig and oust Lesia Tsurenko in straight sets, Ostapenko entered the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career. There, she upset an ailing Samantha Stosur in three tough sets, recovering from a set down to triumph. Being a surprise figure in the quarterfinals, Ostapenko had nothing to lose and mercilessly defeated a familiar figure in Caroline Wozniacki for the third consecutive time during the clay-court season to reach the semifinals.

Jelena Ostapenko couldn't hide her delight after claiming the French Open trophy | Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
Jelena Ostapenko couldn't hide her delight after claiming the French Open trophy | Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

Facing fellow birthday girl Timea Bacsinszky in the last four, both players were fighting for a place in their maiden Slam final on their birthdays. Ostapenko, although marred by periods of inconsistency, continued to swing freely and fire winners after winners to overcome a mid-match wobble and triumph in a thriller which lasted over two hours for her first Major final. There, everything was going wrong for the young Latvian as she was frustrated by Simona Halep’s solid defence, and soon found herself trailing 4-6, 0-3, 30-40.

The Romanian was going for the number one spot and her first Slam title as well and was just nine points away from achieving both concurrently. However, in what could be the biggest comeback in any Major final during recent years, Ostapenko regained her composure and produced an improbable fightback which saw her bring the Championship into a deciding set. There, she once again recovered from a 1-3 deficit and claimed five straight games to complete the Cinderella run for her first Grand Slam title, coming out of nowhere to overcome a 100-1 odd and take home her first trophy on the tour.

Trophy parade: Ostapenko during her trophy photo-shoot in Paris | Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images Europe
Trophy parade: Ostapenko during her trophy photo-shoot in Paris | Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images Europe

Aftermath: Ostapenko manages to back up her results

Rising to the 14th spot in the rankings after her triumph, Ostapenko edged towards a top-10 debut after impressively reaching the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon Championships, where she produced excellent performances against Camila Giorgi and Elina Svitolina, triumphing in straight sets on both occasions.

A third-round appearance at the US Open, where she surprisingly fell to Daria Kasatkina, finally saw her making her top-10 debut, and she solidified her place inside the elite batch by claiming her second career WTA title (first being Roland Garros) in Seoul, where she earned some tough wins. Consecutive semifinal appearances followed as she defeated world number one Garbine Muguruza in the process, before falling to Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals of the Wuhan Open, missing out on a golden opportunity to claim the title. Another solid run to the last four at the China Open followed, coming up short to Simona Halep, a loss which gave Halep the number one ranking.

A debut at the WTA Finals in Singapore ensued for Jelena Ostapenko | Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images AsiaPac
A debut at the WTA Finals in Singapore ensued for Jelena Ostapenko | Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images AsiaPac

Ostapenko’s hard work put in throughout the year was finally being recognized and acknowledged, claiming her first Grand Slam title and eventually making her debut appearance at the prestigious WTA Finals. Even though the Latvian exited the tournament in the Round Robin, she ended the best year of her career thus far with a good straight-sets win over Karolina Pliskova. Her success this year came as a huge surprise to most of the tennis fans, but without a doubt, Ostapenko truly deserves it with all the visible improvements in her game.