In a French Open women’s draw void of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. The WTA tour desperately needed its top players and biggest names to show up. Instead, what it got was a 20 year old Latvian named Jelena Ostapenko.
Who Is Jelena Ostapenko?
Prior to the 2017 French Open, Ostapenko had very little success in majors. In 2015 she made it to the second round of Wimbledon and the US Open (the only two major draws she was in.) In 2016 she went out in the first round of each major but made a small breakthrough in 2017 getting to third round of the Australian Open earlier this year. She came into Roland Garros with a world singles ranking of 47 and a doubles ranking of 34. Little did everyone know that this dark horse would be the one to get through the women’s draw and end up in the final, defying all odds and expectations. While such an achievement deserves to be applauded, many critics of the sport are pointing to Ostapenko’s meteoric rise as something that is wrong with women’s tennis.
What’s The Problem?
In most major sports in the United States, fans crave underdog stories. If an eight seed in the NBA wins a series or even a game the sports world goes wild. If a lowly MLB team has a huge turnaround and becomes a contender everybody is excited about it. In fact, there is even an entire sporting event built around Cinderella storylines and upset victories in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. How then could this possibly be a bad thing for women’s tennis? It all has to do with the nature of the sport.
In any of the major sports leagues in the United States (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA) teams represent cities, states, or regions. Plus, they are comprised of numerous players each having they own following. In professional tennis, for most of the year the players are competing as individuals. Each pro tennis player represents their country of origin and is backed completely by that country, but even so, international star power can be hard to come by for someone hailing from a smaller nation. Not all players can generate international buzz. For example, a consistent top player such as Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, or even Angelique Kerber can draw international fans with TV appearances, commercials, and press conferences. Before this year’s French Open, most sports fans probably didn’t even know who Jelena Ostapenko was. They still may not.
Not A New Issue
The same thing has happened in women’s tennis for a while now. In 2010 Francesca Schiavone won the French Open and then made it back to the final the year after. In 2012 the former champion wasn’t close to as competitive as she had been the previous two years and hasn’t made it past the fourth round of a major since 2011. The same thing happened in the 2016 Olympics when Monica Puig won gold. Before her stunning victory she had only made it to the fourth round of a major once and hasn’t made it past the third since. Some other women who appeared to be on the verge of becoming perennial contenders and then seemingly disappeared are Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, and Eugenie Bouchard. All of whom were expected to be the next big thing in women’s tennis but have failed to live up to the expectations.
It’s interesting that this could be a bad thing for a sports league considering how all of the major US sports are desperate to create parity, but the WTA is more in need of lasting star power. They need a dependable, likable face of women’s tennis to carry the torch after Serena, Venus, and Sharapova retire. This is difficult to find when the players contending for major wins seemingly rise and fall like the tide.
The WTA would certainly prefer some of the more well-known players such as Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard to be the ones making it to the finals. If Ostapenko can continue to make a name for herself and contend for major titles regularly, she could end up being huge for the women’s game. However, if she is just another flash in the pan women’s tennis will continue to struggle to build a foundation that general audiences will want to tune in to see.