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Joel Drucker: Who Writes History?

Sunday morning in Paris. What does it mean on this day to be Jelena Ostapenko? What does it mean to be Simona Halep? How does each at this moment see the world?

The language of tennis serves as counter to the rawness of the sport. Over the last 20 years, the language that has emerged takes refuge in these kind of phrases:

- “It’s all about the journey.”

- “The process is what matters to me.”

- “You can’t control the outcome.”

All true. All useful. Valuable in so many realms. Downright comforting – at least to a point.

Two weeks ago, Roland Garros was buzzed with possibilities. Fancy: 256 men and women, each with hopes, each aware of the process, each keen for that moment that could turn possibilities into opportunities, struggles into victories.

Day by day, each was jettisoned. Second round, third round, round of 16, quarters, semis. Then it was simple: A shootout for the prize. Process? Say what you will. Say what many say, that history is written by the winners.

Certainly that holds true for Jelena Ostapenko. Amid a women’s field that was considered wide open from the jump, the 47th-ranked Ostapenko’s run to the title proved this with a vivid exclamation point – personified in the scorching backhand down-the-line winner she struck on her first championship point. In the manner of such precocious prodigies as Monica Seles, winner here at 16, and Pete Sampras – who described his US Open run at 19 as “a pup going through a zone” – Ostapenko, had shown all the promise (and process?) of youth, utterly feral, joyous, perhaps even blissfully unaware of any consequence in defeat or even victory.

Asked what she felt when down 6-4, 3-0, Ostapenko said, “in my mind, I was just, I’m just going to enjoy the match, and I will try to fight until the last point.” So indeed, in Ostapenko’s case, history is written by the winner – fresh and sizzling, the way we’d like to think our sporting world should always go.

We will see more of Ostapenko in the years to come, more of her brilliant firepower and appetite for competition. There will be victories and defeats, engagement and distance, photo opps and endorsements, family moments and much else that comprise the tennis journey. Right now, Ostapenko is not just a star, but a supernova.

Then, the true binary nature of tennis was present in the form of Halep. Three years ago in the finals here, she had been the underdog against the veteran, Maria Sharapova, losing her first Grand Slam singles final, 6-4 in the third. “I have to be happy, to smile, because I did everything on court,” Halep had said that day. “I didn’t expect three sets, three hours, but it happened, and I’m really happy that I could stay very long time on court.”

In 2017, though, Halep was no longer the surprise, but a significant favorite to take the title. She had been so much in the course of the year, enduring a breakup with her coach, Darren Cahill, spurred less by defeat (outcome) and more by attitude (process). She’d found a new path, earned a composed victory from match point down at Roland Garros, appeared primed to fulfill her destiny versus the streaky Ostapenko, a player who’d never even won a tournament.

Sadly, it would have been easier for Halep to have lost this match 6-2, 6-2. In that case, it’s possible to merely (well, not so merely) write off the bludgeoning. But to have come this close had revealed the cruelty of the competitive process. Halep at one point led 6-4, 3-0, with points for 4-0. What to make of that? “This one hurts a lot maybe because I am more – I realize what is happening,” said Halep in the final statement of her post-match press conference. “Three years ago, was something new, so now I know. Hurts a lot, and I need time just to – I don’t know. To go away.” Though Halep was smiling as she said this, surely, hopefully, she was aware of another premise: History is also written by the losers.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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