Headed into this year's French Open, there were a lot of uncertainties swirling around in women's tennis. Serena Williams was out due to pregnancy. Maria Sharapova was out because she didn't receive a wild card. Defending champion Garbine Muguruza and current No. 1 Angelique Kerber both were struggling immensely. The championship seemed wide open for the taking.
After fortnight of drama, there will be some clarity on Saturday: either Simona Halep, one of the best players on the WTA Tour without a major, will shed that distinction and become the new No. 1, or the unseeded 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko will become the sport's newest superstar.
The arc of Halep's past few months could have come straight out of Hollywood. In March, the 25-year-old lost meekly in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open to No. 10 Johanna Konta, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2. After seeing her poor performance in the business end of the match, her coach Darren Cahill was so frustrated with her effort and attitude that he quit.
Like a plot device in a made-for-TV movie, Cahill's drastic decision became just the wake-up call that Halep needed. She won Cahill back with composed, competitive play over her next couple tournaments, and since the two have reunited, she has won one title and made three straight finals, including this one here in Roland Garros.
Now she's one victory away from a fairy-tale ending—if she can get through Ostapenko, of course.
Ostapenko turned 20 years old on Thursday, the same day she upset No. 30 seed Timea Bacsinzky 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 to make it to her first Grand Slam final. She is the first unseeded player to reach the final of the French Open in 34 years, and the first Latvian, man or woman, to reach a Grand Slam final ever.
The No. 47-ranked player is pretty much living out a Cinderella story of her own, but reductive female character tropes aside, the on-court match-up between Halep and Ostapenko's games is really why this final is so exciting.
Ostapenko perfectly encapsulates the brashness of youth with her aggressive, go-for-broke style. This French Open alone, she has hit 245 winners, more than any other man or woman in the singles draws as of Friday morning. She has power to go with that precision, too: her forehand has been clocked as one of the fastest in the tournament—even faster than the forehand of men's No. 1 Andy Murray.
Ostapenko has always had a high-risk, high-reward game, which due to its very nature meant the upside was only seen in flashes. Recently, however, she started working with Spaniard Anabel Medina Garrigues, a two-time Roland Garros women's doubles champion who says she has been trying to teach Ostapenko "the patience of a Spanish tennis player."
Halep, by contrast, is never going to power anyone off of the court, but her strengths are in the rest of the game: her movement, her anticipation, her variety, her return, and especially her defense. She is going to make Ostapenko hit extra shots, and test her nerve.
Ostapenko has never won a WTA title before, and this is her first time making it past the third round of a Slam. Halep, meanwhile, has won 15 WTA titles, and was in the French Open final three years ago, where she lost to Maria Sharapova in a three-set epic.
While it would be foolish to count Ostapenko out, the stars do seem to be aligning for Halep. She had her back against the wall in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, down 3-6, 1-5 to Ukranian Elina Svitolina, before rallying to win 12 of the last 13 games of the match. It would have been hard to imagine her making that kind of comeback just a few months ago.
She's figured out how to fight, and she's staying focused on the prize.
"I'm not finished," Halep told reporters after her semifinal win.