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Unseeded Jelena Ostapenko advances to French Open final

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 08-06-2017 Sandra Harwitt, Special for USA TODAY Sports
Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia plays a backhand during her singles semifinal match against Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland during the French Open on June 8. © Adam Pretty, Getty Images Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia plays a backhand during her singles semifinal match against Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland during the French Open on June 8.

PARIS — It was a birthday bash for both semifinal opponents — the 20th for Jelena Ostapenko and 28th for TImea Bacsinszky — at the French Open on Thursday.

But when the tennis playing part of the party was over, it was the Latvian Ostapenko who left the court with the best birthday present ever —  a ticket to her first career Grand Slam final. Ostapenko won the prize with a 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3 win over the 30th-seeded Swiss, who was playing in her second French Open semifinal in the last three years.

While Bascinszky exited the court, the crowd broke into song for Ostapenko — it’s Joyeaux Anniversaire to the same tune as Happy Birthday here in France. They didn’t just sing it once, they sang it twice after the 2 hour, 25 minute match wrapped up.

“I’m really happy,” said the 47th-ranked Ostapenko to the crowd. “I love to play here. I’m just happy the way I celebrate my birthday.”

If Ostapenko is a devotee of the idea that some things are just meant to be — taking coincidences as a reliable sign — it’s quite possible she might already think this French Open title is in the bag. If she does reign over the French Open on Saturday she would win her first career tour-level title.

In a numerological curiosity, the last person to win their debut career title at the French Open was Gustavo Kuerten. The Brazilian won that first of three French Open trophies here on June 8, 1997, the very day that Ostapenko was born.

It’s been a long time since a woman accomplished the feat of scoring a first career title at a Grand Slam — one has to look way back to Australian Christine O’Neil at the 1978 Australian Open for the last time it happened.

Ostapenko is the first Latvian woman to appear in a Grand Slam semifinal in the Open Era. In fact, no Latvian woman has ever journeyed to a Grand Slam quarterfinal. She is, however, not the first Latvian citizen to taste Grand Slam semifinal success as compatriot Ernests Gulbis reached the final four at Roland Garros in 2014.

The semifinal was an uneven match at times with 16 breaks of serve — eight for each player — in 29 break point opportunities presented.

There was no doubt, however, that Ostapenko was the more aggressive player, the woman taking all the risks on court. In comparison, Bacsinszky was content in attempting to win on the defense. The statistical numbers prove that Ostapenko was on the offense as she posted 50 winners to 45 unforced errors, while Bascinszky countered with only 22 winners to 19 unforced errors.

It seemed that every time Bascinszky would look up, there was Ostapenko approaching the net and going for high swinging volley winners off her forehand and backhand flanks. The Latvian isn’t yet in possession of perfectly polished game, but she delivers great drama to the delight of fans.

To achieve the ultimate — winning her first Grand Slam title on her first try, just like Kuerten did 20 years ago — Ostapenko will have to overcome one of two seeded final opponents. She’d need to secure a first career victory in a third meeting against second seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, or win a first career outing against third seed Simona Halep of Romania.

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