Matt Zemek

Commentators often like to invoke the notion of a “bad loss,” differentiating it from an “acceptable loss” or a “good loss.” I’m not going to dive into a discussion of those distinctions, but I will say that Jelena Ostapenko’s first-round exit from Roland Garros — 7-5, 6-3, at the hands of Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine — will certainly inspire debate about that point.

To me, this is not a time when the dimensions of a “bad loss” are particularly relevant or important. What matters is that Ostapenko learns from her experience. What happened on Sunday inside Court Philippe Chatrier is simultaneously rare in a larger historical sense and appreciably common in recent tennis history. Yes, an event can be rare and common at the same time. Complexity, not simplicity, governs this particular upset on day one of the 2018 French Open.

The Williams sisters, Steffi Graf, and the other great champions of women’s tennis very rarely lose (or lost) in round one of a major. Venus Williams did lose in round one on Sunday as well, but that’s only the 10th time in 78 majors she has lost in the first round. Moreover, Venus lost in the first round in only three of her first 54 majors. Only illness and older age have caused most of her early exits to occur. In her prime, such an event almost never happened.

It is also true that defending champions at specific majors don’t normally bomb out in round one. Ostapenko’s loss is the first opening-round loss for a reigning French Open champion since Anastasia Myskina in 2005. More precisely, it’s the ONLY loss for a defending women’s singles champion in Paris. Angelique Kerber’s round-one loss to Naomi Osaka at last year’s U.S. Open marked a rare occasion in which the defending champion in New York left the Big Apple after her first match. In 2003, neither of the 2002 champions got past the first round, but Pete Sampras (retired) and Serena Williams (injury) didn’t lose a first-round match. They never entered the tournament. Losing in the first round of a major as defending champion is not common.

However, for all the ways in which the Ostapenko loss is not a normal event, it also IS an entirely natural tennis occurrence with multiple examples in recent years. Kerber was one such example at the 2017 U.S. Open. Ostapenko’s loss marks the fourth consecutive time in which the defending champion at a major has not reached the second round, though only the second time due to losing a round-one match.

There are other ways in which one can see this event as part of a pattern. For instance, the French Open has now featured round-one losses by a previous year’s major champion in consecutive editions. Kerber didn’t win the 2016 French Open, but she did win majors in 2016, and she lost in round one last year. Ostapenko’s loss means that a 2017 major champion lost again in round one in Paris this year.

Here, though, is a bigger and more important pattern to take note of in the wake of Ostapenko’s loss: Young major champions commonly go through adjustment periods after breaking through.

Martina Hingis wasn’t defending a Wimbledon title in 1999, but her first-round loss to Jelena Dokic was a seismic upset at the time. Hingis hadn’t yet turned 19. Svetlana Kuznetsova, as the 20-year-old defending champion at the 2005 U.S. Open, lost in the first round. The Williamses won so many majors, Serena in particular, that the reality of major champions losing in first rounds didn’t occur with great frequency, but when non-Williams, non-Henin, non-Sharapova champions have worn a heavy crown, they have felt its weight.

This dynamic has existed in men’s tennis as well. Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open and then took his lumps for a few years before putting all the pieces together on a more regular basis at Wimbledon and in New York. Andre Agassi’s 1992 Wimbledon title did not immediately open the floodgates for more championships; he went through valleys before finding his peak again. Yet, more than those two icons, the ATP player who most fully evokes a sense of volatility which is similar to Ostapenko is the man whose feat Ostapenko replicated last year in Paris.

When Ostapenko won the 2017 French Open, she won her first tour event at a major. The last person to do that was Gustavo Kuerten, also at the French Open… on the day Ostapenko was born in June of 1997. How fitting it is that these two players should be linked in tennis history, because Ostapenko’s loss in 2018 points to an under-discussed aspect of Guga’s career.

When I researched French Open men’s semifinalists from 1992-2004 for a piece I published at Tennis With An Accent just before this French Open began, I was startled to see that Kuerten made the French Open semifinals only three times. Does that fact surprise you? Maybe not, but for most people, I reckon it probably would cause a few eyebrows to shoot up.

Kuerten pulled off the very rare feat of winning a major tournament three times yet never making the semifinals beyond those three occasions. That’s hard to do, both in terms of the enormity of winning three majors and the limited nature of his longevity at a tournament he knew how to win. Typically, a player wins multiple times at a specific major tournament because he or she regularly makes the latter rounds; some years s/he falls short, but other years she breaks through.

Boris Becker at Wimbledon; Ivan Lendl at the French; Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open; Federer and Djokovic at the Australian Open — these men have lost quarterfinals, semifinals and finals on a number of occasions, but remained persistent and waited for moments when the trophies rolled into their hands. Winning six, eight, 12, or 20 major titles isn’t “normal,” but what remains natural is the process of constantly being in the hunt and winning championships because of that consistency over a longer period of time. Guga Kuerten escaped that pattern, but while that “escape” is abnormal in some ways, it isn’t all that shocking in others, chiefly how the Brazilian responded to his first Roland Garros title in 1997, the title which wasn’t replicated by anyone else in tennis until Ostapenko, 20 years later.

In the 1998 French Open, a 21-year-old Kuerten lost in the second round. This man, whose game so organically snapped into place on clay and whose comfort level should have been so pronounced, couldn’t find form or function when he wore the target on his back. Instructively, though, Kuerten went through that valley at Roland Garros and — in 2000 and 2001 — managed to stack back-to-back titles on top of each other. As a young major champion in 1998, Kuerten faltered, but in time, he used that experience and turned it into a positive moment.

Is this a bad loss for Ostapenko, a person who is walking in Kuerten’s path at the moment? I don’t think it is, but as said at the start of this piece, I don’t think that’s the important point of focus here. What matters is that Ostapenko study tennis history, come to terms with the reality of life on tour, accept that hardships will be part of the journey… and learn lessons which might bear fruit in two or three years.

She has, after all, not even turned 21.

Even major champions have the right — and deserve the space — in which to learn lessons about growing up on tour. The Education Of A Young Tennis Player can apply to those who have lifted major trophies.

Image taken from Jimmie 48 Photography

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