PARIS (Reuters) - On the morning of the women’s French Open semi-finals on Thursday seven-times champion Chris Evert said the moment had arrived for a player to step up and seize an opportunity that may not come around again for a while.
The American questioned which of the last four survivors -- Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Timea Bacsinszky or Jelena Ostapenko -- would rise to the challenge of winning their first grand slam in the absence of so many big names.
“We need new stars,” claycourt great Evert told an event hosted by broadcaster Eurosport, for whom she is working as a pundit during the French Open.
“You have two options. You either rise to it and are really excited to win a first grand slam or you get afraid and shy away from it. Who is mentally prepared to handle it?”
A few hours later she had her answer as Ostapenko, the youngest, lowest-ranked and least experienced of the quartet produced a fearless performance to beat Bacsinszky in three absorbing sets -- belting 50 winners in the process.
Ostapenko, who celebrated her 20th birthday on Thursday, had never won a match at the French Open before last week.
Now she stands one match away from becoming the first unseeded player in the professional era to win the women’s title at the French Open and the first Latvian grand slam champion.
Ostapenko trained as a ballroom dancer for seven years but seems more suited to thrashing the fluff off tennis balls.
On Thursday, in a frenetic match of 16 breaks of serve and in which she made 45 unforced errors, some of which would have had Evert wincing, she was irresistible at times.
”She showed good nerves throughout the match,“ Evert said later. ”She has been working on that with her coach.
“She came out like a thunderstorm in the third set.”
Ostapenko’s best chance of winning the final will be to play a similar way against the wily Halep, who can reach world number one if she takes the title.
Although Evert says that would be a tall order.
“I don’t think many players win their first grand slam final,” she said. “I would be surprised if she came out and hit winners all over the court like she has been doing. But I might be wrong. Anything could happen.”
With such an attacking game, backing Ostapenko could be a precarious business. But Evert is clearly impressed and believes she has the game to profit from the uncertainty surrounding some of the biggest names in the women’s game.
Serena Williams, the 23-times major champion, is pregnant, double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is just back after being stabbed, five-times major champion Maria Sharapova has only recently returned from a doping ban and former world number one Victoria Azarenka has been out after having a baby.
“In the women’s (game) there has been a big gap. That gap won’t be there at Wimbledon because (Maria) Sharapova will come back, Victoria (Azarenka) will come back, (Petra) Kvitova will be better than ever,” Evert said.
“You are going to have some added faces but this one is wide open. Who is going to step up and want it more. Halep has the best chance but Ostapenko is really shining.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris/Rex Gowar