She’s been called “beautiful,” “hot” and “sexy” but when it comes to tennis, the most apt description for Maria Sharapova has to be “tough.”
The Russian rallied from a set down three straight times to reach this year’s French Open final and then prevailed in Saturday’s thrilling three-hour finale against rising star Simona Halep, 6-4 6-7 6-4.
“This is the toughest grand slam final I’ve ever played,” Sharapova, who was contesting a ninth such match, summed up as she collected her trophy.
Even after losing the second set and hitting a flurry of double faults, Sharapova still had the edge.
She’s almost a sure thing in third sets on clay, having triumphed 20 times in a row. It’s been six years since the 27-year-old was defeated after capturing the first set in a clay-court match, too.
But if Halep maintains this form, it won’t be long before she opens her grand slam account.
Smaller and with less power than Sharapova, the Romanian nonetheless almost did the unthinkable – toughing out the now five-time grand slam champion. Her manager, Virginia Ruzici, remains the last Romanian to win a grand slam, in Paris in 1978.
Sharapova famously uttered in 2007 that she felt like a “cow on ice” playing on clay but the French Open has now become her most productive grand slam – it’s the only one she’s won more than once and it’s the only one she’s won after two serious shoulder injuries in 2008 and 2013.
“If somebody had told me at some stage in my career that I’d have more Roland Garros titles than any other grand slam, I’d probably go get drunk,” Sharapova later told reporters. “Or tell them to get drunk, one or the other.
“I feel that I worked to get to this position.”
Her victory over the fourth seed made it 50 wins altogether at Roland Garros, good enough for seventh among the women in the Open Era.
“Sharapova is already considered one of the best competitors ever in my view,” tennis analyst Pam Shriver, a former top-three player in singles and doubles, told CNN. “Just take alone what she has done since her shoulder surgery, how she regained her form not only post surgery but post service (woes) when most matches she was serving 10-15 double faults.
“Also think about clay and her never-give-up attitude with clay.”
While Halep cried in her chair after the match, there were tears of joy for Sharapova, who made the now familiar climb up to her box in celebration. Halep’s mood, however, quickly changed.
“I was crying at that moment for a few minutes, and then I was smiling because I said that it was my first grand slam final, and I have to be happy, to smile, because I did everything on court,” Halep told reporters. “I played very good tennis, very good level. So I’m really proud about these two weeks.”
Sharapova is routinely listed as the world’s richest female athlete with a thick dossier of high-profile sponsors and with Saturday’s check of more than $2 million, she also moved into second place in career prize money on the WTA tour behind Serena Williams at upwards of $30 million.
Once the American fell in the second round, Sharapova became the significant favorite. She has been virtually unbeatable on clay since the start of 2012 when facing opponents apart from the American.
Stretched to deciders by Samantha Stosur, Garbine Muguruza – Williams’ conqueror – and Eugenie Bouchard on her way to the French final, it looked like Sharapova would drop another opening set when Halep held an early 2-0 lead on a second consecutive sweltering day in the French capital.
But Sharapova won the next five games to assume control, only to drop serve.
That’s when the drama began.
Long games were the norm, pushing the duration of the opener to nearly an hour despite the routine 6-4 score.
A drubbing appeared to be on the cards in the second when Sharapova quickly established a 2-0 advantage.
The double faults – overall Sharapova hit a dozen after mostly keeping those unforced errors down this fortnight – combined with a more solid Halep soon got things level.
One of the finest rallies of the tournament – 20 shots – won by Halep earned her a break point at 4-4 and when she took it, a third set loomed. A net-cord winner at 30-40, though, allowed Sharapova to break back.
The to-and-fro ensued to the crowd’s delight.