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Steve Flink: Maria deservedly secures a career Grand Slam

6/9/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS—Back in the summer of 2004—when she was only 17, before she fully understood what she was doing, at a very different stage of her life—Maria Sharapova went out on the fabled Centre Court and won the most prestigious title in tennis, toppling two-time defending champion Serena Williams in a dazzling straight set final. Two years later, under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, in perhaps her finest career performance, she upended Justine Henin to capture the 2006 United States Open. And then, at the outset of 2008, she took on the gifted Ana Ivanovic in the final of the Australian Open at Melbourne, garnering that crown with a straight set triumph. Sharapova had scaled many of the premier heights in her sport, and there was a growing sense among the game’s authorities that she was a player who was destined to keep herself up there among the elite for a very long while.

But then her body interceded. Sharapova could not even play singles from August of 2008 until May of 2009. She had shoulder surgery in October of 2008. Ever since, the process of reclaiming her once prodigious serve had been difficult. She fought on valiantly, but finished 2009 at No. 14, and concluded the following season at No. 18. But then, a year ago, she gradually rediscovered some of the old lost art in her game. Sharapova made it to the semifinals of the French Open—her second visit to the penultimate round of the world’s premier clay court event—and then advanced to the final of Wimbledon. Another major seemed well within her grasp, but a free flowing and virtually unconscious Petra Kvitova halted Sharapova in straight sets.

And yet, Sharapova finished 2011 at No. 4 in the world, a big step back toward the top of the game for a player who had first climbed to No. 1 in August of 2005. As the curtain opened on the 2012 season, Sharapova removed Kvitova in the semifinals of the Australian Open, earning the right to face Victoria Azarenka in the championship match. But after capturing the first two games of that confrontation, Sharapova was taken apart by a methodical and unrelenting Azarenka, falling 6-3, 6-0, dropping 12 of the last 13 games in that painful  setback. Nonetheless, she remained ferociously determined and unshakable. Beaten again in the final at Indian Wells by Azarenka, and then ousted surprisingly in the final of Miami by Agnieszka Radwanska, Sharapova simply moved on with her business and left those disappointments in the past.

At Stuttgart, Sharapova defeated both Kvitova and Azarenka to take that significant clay court event. After a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of Madrid, Sharapova reignited her game once more, winning the Italian Open in Rome, saving a match point against Li Na in a wildly fluctuating final round duel. So Sharapova headed to Paris in precisely the right frame of mind, with two clay court titles in her possession, and a belief that this just might be her time to prevail at Roland Garros. Today, Sharapova realized that dream, casting aside a determined yet overpowered Sara Errani 6-3, 6-2 with a workmanlike and highly efficient performance.

Errani was seeded 21st, and had celebrated some impressive wins en route to her first final at a major. She surprised 2010 finalist Sam Stosur—the No. 6 seed—in the semifinals. Earlier in the fortnight, she accounted for Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the Roland Garros victors of 2008 and 2009. Errani is a capable and intelligent player who had won three clay court titles earlier this year. But the fact remains that she had come into this French Open with a 1-37 record against top 15 opponents and a 0-28 record against top ten adversaries. She was also only the fourth ranked Italian as she approached Roland Garros, stationed behind 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, Roberta Vinci, and Flavia Pennetta.

By the time Errani arrived for her appointment with Sharapova, she had already accomplished more than she ever could have imagined at the start of the tournament. She is projected to move up to No. 10 in the world on Monday, and that is no mean feat. But she never really had a chance to disrupt the rhythm of Sharapova. This final was almost entirely in Maria’s hands—it was her match, decidedly, to win or lose. Sharapova knew she had the weight of shot, the depth and the sheer firepower to overwhelm Errani, and she did just that, both on serve and off the ground. This was, after all, the seventh “Big Four” final for Sharapova, and it was a moment she was not willing to waste. The only way she could lose was with self-inflicted wounds, and Sharapova refused to allow that to happen.

Sharapova commenced this final round contest by holding at 15 for 1-0, connecting with four out of five first serves, serving one ace and one double fault, seizing control of the proceedings with her admirably controlled aggression. With Errani serving at 15-30 in the second game, Sharapova beautifully redirected a backhand down the line for a clean winner. Two points later, she broke at 30 for 2-0, cagily looping a backhand return up high to lure the diminutive Errani into an error on her two-handed side. Sharapova was composed, confident, and eager to establish her superiority. She held at love with an ace down the T to make it 3-0. In sweeping those three games, Sharapova had collected 12 of 15 points.

Errani, however, is a player of immense heart and unwavering instincts. She rallied from 15-40 to deuce in the fourth game as Sharapova briefly lost her range off the forehand. But the 25-year-old, No. 2 seed was unswerving. She released a blazing forehand return winner crosscourt to earn a third break point, followed by a scintillating inside-out forehand winner. Sharapova had the second break for 4-0. She had a lapse in the next game, serving two double faults, losing her serve at 15 as Errani benefitted from another inside-out mistake off the forehand from Sharapova. Errani held her serve at last to make it 4-2 for Sharapova, encouraging not only herself but the fans. Sharapova had lost a bit of her accuracy and control, and Errani had exploited that for all it was worth.

The seventh game was crucial, as Sharapova well understood. She played that game commandingly, clipping the sideline with a backhand crosscourt winner, lacing a forehand winner up the line, and then cracking another two-hander down the line for a winner for 40-0. She held on at love for 5-2, and soon moved to 15-40, double set point on the Italian’s serve. But Errani managed to sweep four points in a row to hold on for 3-5, forcing Sharapova to serve the set out. Sharapova served her fourth double fault to make it 15-15 in the ninth game, but swiftly restored order. An effective first serve to Errani’s forehand drew an error and it was 30-15, but Errani answered with a magnificent backhand down the line winner that caught Sharapova off guard.

Here was Sharapova at 5-3, 30-30, with Errani making her work hard to close out the set. Sharapova was unflustered, taking utter control of the next rally before making a sparkling forehand winner down the line. At 40-30, Sharapova judiciously threw in a slow kick serve to keep Errani off balance. The clever tactic worked. Errani’s return was short, and Sharapova had the court open for a backhand winner down the line. Set to Sharapova, 6-3.

Now the No. 2 seed realized she was closing in on her target of the title. She broke at love in the opening game of the second set after producing another of her trademark backhand down the line winners. Sharapova held on in a tough deuce game for 2-0, and then Errani held her ground in the third game after the heavy favorite came back from 40-0 down to deuce. Errani’s tenacity was rewarded with a hold. Once more, Sharapova had to fight her way through a difficult game on serve, but she managed to reach 3-1 after two deuces. The standard on both sides of the net had become considerably higher. Errani was competing as hard as she could. Sharapova was looking to deliver the knockout blow.

With Errani at 1-3, the Italian was pushed to deuce five times by a Sharapova who was sensibly going for her shots and holding nothing back. On her third break point of that fifth game, Sharapova chased down a drop shot from the resourceful Italian and kept her passing shot low off the backhand. Errani could not handle the awkward low volley. Sharapova had moved to 4-1 with an insurance break. In the sixth game, Sharapova surged to 30-0, six points away from her first French Open title. But Errani stung her with a penetrating backhand down the line, and then Sharapova apprehensively double faulted into the net for 30-30. Inspired, Errani released a forehand return winner, and then broke for 2-4 when Sharapova did not get enough pace on an inside-out forehand. Errani responded with a backhand down the line that was too good.

The murmur in the crowd was telling. They thought that perhaps the little Italian might be ready to stage a dramatic turnaround in the match. But that was not to be. Sharapova opened the critical seventh game with a backhand winner up the line, and closed it with the same shot for another outright winner. She broke at 15 for 5-2, and then served for the match. Errani was still unwilling to surrender tamely. Sharapova made a stupendous running forehand winner down the line to reach 40-30, going to match point for the first time, only to miss a daring forehand down the line that was driven inches long. Errani earned a break point, but Sharapova erased that emphatically with an acutely angled backhand crosscourt winner.

The tennis in this game was first class. Sharapova hit an ace out wide for a second match point opportunity, but Errani made a remarkable return off a big serve and eventually Errani took that point with a forehand drop shot that was too much for Maria to handle. Once more, Sharapova served an ace, this one down the T. She was at match point for the third and final time. Sharapova angled a backhand crosscourt, and Errani had do dig it out. She missed. Sharapova had won her first ever meeting with Errani.

And so Sharapova has come through now to claim a career Grand Slam. Up until this year, no one really believed she could win the world’s most important clay court event. She has always competed with integrity on the clay, and yet her movement always seemed suspect. Not so in 2012. Time and again across the tournament and through her match with Errani, Sharapova slid into her shots admirably, defended perspicaciously, and shifted brilliantly from defense to offense. Her mobility was vastly improved on this surface. She made open stance backhands look routine, got to wide balls on her forehand and found a way to get those shots back into play, and kept herself in points during this fortnight that in years gone she would have given up for lost. Sharapova developed a clay court game this season that far surpassed anything she has shown us in the past.

She is only the tenth woman ever to achieve a career Grand Slam, joining Doris Hart, Shirley Fry, Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams in that lofty territory. Connolly, Court and Graf all won all four majors in a single season for calendar-year Grand Slams, an even taller and much tougher accomplishment. But Sharapova has joined an elite an important club. Among the modern champions, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis only won three of the four majors, with Davenport and Hingis each failing to come through at Roland Garros. Even the great Justine Henin—a four time winner at Roland Garros—had to settle for three of the four majors in her collection. She never won Wimbledon.

Sharapova has now taken all of the four majors once, but the feeling grows that she will not stop where she is. Having recaptured the No. 1 world ranking that she last held in June of 2008, Sharapova should be right in the thick of things at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Moreover, at 25, she has at least three more years to contend viably at all of the biggest venues. There is no reason why Maria Sharapova should not win a few more Grand Slam events because the world of women’s tennis could find no one who is more professional than this woman of deep determination and high ambitions. Moreover, she is playing perhaps the greatest tennis of her illustrious career.