By Matt Cronin
PARIS - Comeback stories in tennis are sometimes so over dramatized that the authentic ones lose their sparkle.
But Maria Sharapova's march back to the No. 1 ranking almost four years after a severe shoulder injury that nearly ended her career is not one of the those.
It's a very real one and after a sometimes torturous comeback, Sharapova has retaken the No. 1 ranking and punched her way into her first Roland Garros final with a 6-3, 6-3 dismantling of Petra Kvitova.
"It is satisfying to be in a Roland Garros final for the first time when I know many years ago I'm sure many people never considered me getting to this stage," she said. "And personally I've always believed and I have worked towards it, but I didn't quite know if I was really ever physically quite ready for that. So to be on this stage for the first time in my career, 25 years old, is just a great personal achievement."
In October 2008, the California and Florida resident by way of Russian underwent shoulder surgery and didn’t return to singles competition until May 2009 in Warsaw.
During her rehab, there were days in which her surgically repaired shoulder hurt so much that she couldn’t even take a walk on the beach. Reflecting on that period a couple of years ago, the three-time Grand Slam champion told me that she soothed her mind by thinking back to some of her greatest triumphs, like her shocking upset of Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final, her beatdown of Justine Henin in the 2006 US Open final, or her complete devastation of the 2008 Australian Open field. But there were some other kinds of triumphs that few noticed, the ones that were won based on grit and guile.
“When you are 17 and winning Wimbledon it’s not so much a freebie, but I never thought I was ready to win it physically or mentally,” she said. “But something in me was so strong and I didn’t let anything bother me. I was almost oblivious to the outside world. When I look back at the matches when I played great, I think about what was going through my mind. Confidence helps and you are on autopilot. I also go back to the tough days when I wasn’t feeling great, or I wasn’t thinking straight, and still managed to pull it together. I think about how I was able to turn it around."
There also were those days when Sharapova saw her ranking drop through the floor week by week and she would call up her team and cry. But she stayed determined and was willing to take the punches, even when during the first two years of her comeback there were times when she was playing at 50% of her prior level. Her shoulder still hurt on many occasions and she had to reconstruct her serve time and time again just to avoid pain shooting up her arm, or the numbness in her right hand.
She heard people make fun of her frequent double faulting, folks who had no idea that due to her surgery there were times that she couldn't even feel the balls coming off her strings on her kick serve.
But she kept grinding, was willing to take all sorts of advice and finally, during this clay court season, her serve has become a consistent weapon, which is one of the reasons why she has won 18 of her last 19 matches on clay. Her return of serve has always been vicious and her groundstrokes are also deadly when she is moving well.
But in taking down Kvitova for the third straight time this year, she did it by hitting her spots with her serves, which allowed her to take control early in rallies so she could stretch the lefthander out and gun for the corners.
Sharapova, whose serve had let her down in previous majors, placed 75% of her first serves in and won 79% percent of those points. She actually won the match on a second serve ace down the tee, which might have been the first time she has done that in her career.
"Let's not go crazy here," after I mentioned that to her. "It wasn't the first one ever. Maybe second," she said with a hearty laugh.
Sharapova broke Kvitova four times in the contest, who made a mini charge in the second set to even it at 3-3, but then imploded after one of her returns of serve was called out on game point to give Sharapova 4-3 lead.
She then went on a mental walkabout and Sharapova quickly closed out the contest.
"She improved a lot, not only on the clay," said Kvitova. "I wasn't playing bad, but she was better. She deserves it, and she's No. 1 now. She has a big serve. It's tough to return her. She plays very fast. It's a different game compared to matches before."
Sharapova will play the feisty Italian Sara Errani in the final, whom she considers a dangerous foe. And why not? Errani is the ultimate thinking woman's player who has belied her lack of height and become a major defense to offense threat, sprinting past a series of fine foes en route to the final. Two former Roland Garros champs in Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the much improved German Angelique Kerber, and on Saturday she chopped the mighty clay court lover Samantha Stosur in three sets, showing steely serves while the US Open champion shook.
Errani, the 21st seed, said that she finally believes she can hang with the top players.
So can Sharapova, but since her May 2009 return to the tour, she has only reached two major finals - 2011 Wimbledon, where she lost to Kvitova, and the 2012 Australian Open, where she went down hard to soon-to-be-No. 2 Victoria Azarenka. But she never stopped believing she would get to this stage again.
The cherry on the cake would be her first Roland Garros title, but even if she doesn't win it, she'll be back for more. She's is the mark of resiliency.
"It's about understanding that you did something well enough to get to that position, to get into the finals, and about realizing that when you get to the finals, you're not done," she said. "You have to keep going. You have to keep playing with the same intensity, same level. You've got to be even better. That's pretty much the way to look at it. Resiliency is important, because if you let things get to you and losses and words and negative things, then it can be frustrating. But after I came back from injury I've been much better at not allowing those things to bother me. Results and little things that can maybe make your mind go crazy. They don't bother me so much now."