Defending champion Jelena Ostapenko begins her campaign for a second consecutive French Open crown against Ukraine’s Kateryna Kozlova. Last year, Latvia’s Ostapenko emerged from almost complete obscurity to win the title, having only turned 20 days before the final. This year she will have the added pressure of expectation, but Ostapenko has matured into a solid top ten player since last year. Kozlova has yet to crack the top 50, but is not short of talent. Who will win?
Somewhat surprisingly, considering Ostapenko’s significantly higher ranking, it is Kozlova who has won their previous two matches. But in Ostapenko’s defence, both matches were contested very early on in her career, giving the elder Kozlova a substantial advantage. Their first match was contested four years ago on the clay courts in Grado, Italy, which Kozlova won in three sets, 3-6 6-1 6-2. She then defeated Ostapenko in straight sets 7-5 6-2 in 2016 in Den Bosch on grass.
Last time out
After impressively reaching the final in Miami, Ostapenko must have come into the clay court season with high expectations. Unfortunately, they have not quite been met by the Latvian. After beginning her clay court season in Stuttgart where she lost in the quarterfinals to Karolina Pliskova, she lost in her first match in Madrid in straight sets to Irina-Camelia Begu. But she did notch a couple of wins in Rome, before bowing out to Maria Sharapova after a hard-fought quarterfinal that finished 6-7 6-4 7-5 in the Russian’s favour.
For Kozlova, preparations for the French Open have been brief after spending much of March and April on the side lines following a defeat in the first round of the Indian Wells qualifying. The Ukrainian made her return to the Tour in Nuremberg, but it was far from the comeback Kozlova will have been envisaging. She was comfortably defeated in the first round by the lower ranked Veronica Cepede Royg of Paraguay 6-3 6-4.
How do they match up?
Ostapenko already has a well-deserved reputation as one of the biggest hitters in the women’s game. Indeed, her groundstrokes have a higher average speed than former world #1 Andy Murray’s, which goes some way to illustrate how devastating she can be. Her forehand is her main weapon, and the Latvian generally uses it to good effect. Her backhand, though less venomous than her forehand, is certainly still a danger to opponents.
Kozlova will likely look to her forehand and serve to do most of the damage to Ostapenko’s title challenge. Both the Ukrainian’s first and second serves are generally reliable and, crucially, difficult to attack. She also possesses excellent feel. Using the dropshot on her backhand side is a common choice for Kozlova, particularly when her court position is advanced beyond the baseline, and Ostapenko will have to be alive to that threat from Kozlova.
Although Kozlova has won their only two previous meetings, its hard to be confident in her chances this time around. Ostapenko has undergone a dramatic improvement in the nearly two years since they last played. She has certainly gone some way to proving that her run to the French Open was not a fluke. And her power will be too much for Kozlova to deal with. Expect the defending champion to get her campaign off to a good start with a straight sets win.