Tennis

Sharapova completes climb to top

State Of Grace
Maria Sharapova's win at Roland Garros has been a long time in the making.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

Maria Sharapova offered a classic demonstration of just how she has returned to the top of the women’s game by winning the French Open — and so completing a full set of all four Grand Slam titles — with an assured and impressive 6-2, 6-3 defeat of Italy’s Sara Errani at Roland Garros on Saturday.

The serious, professional façade that fronts Sharapova’s performances on court melted as she sank to her knees on the clammy clay and then revealed her joy as she sprang up, shook hands with her worthy opponent and did a victory jig while she received the acclaim of the Center Court crowd.

The accolades were as deserved as the victory. And, after everything she has been through since winning Wimbledon as an innocent 17-year-old, she described the experience as “surreal.”

2012 French Open

2012 French Open

“It’s the most unique moment I’ve experienced in my career,” she said. “I never thought I would have that.”

Glancing at the trophy, which contained layers of all the surfaces on which she had won Grand Slam titles, that had been presented to her minutes before, she said: “When I fell down on my knees today I realized that this was extremely special, even more so than winning Wimbledon.”

There were times after she underwent shoulder surgery in October 2008 when she wondered if she would ever play again. And for years, she, along with the critics, had doubted if she would ever be able to improve her movement sufficiently to conquer clay.

But now she has joined a very select group of women players who have won all four Slams. There have been 10 in all and six in the Open era (since 1968). The most recent was Serena Williams, whose shocking first-round defeat here to Virginie Razzano provided Sharapova with the slice of luck that is so often needed for players trying to win a Slam. Serena had won easily when they met on the blue clay of Madrid last month, and they would have met in the quarterfinals here.

But that should not diminish Maria’s achievement. She had beaten Victoria Azarenka, whom she superseded as world No. 1 this week, in the final in Stuttgart and last year’s French Open champion Li Na in the final in Rome. The confidence was growing with every match and, apart from a slight dip when she dropped a set to Klara Zakopalova in the fourth round, her progress through the draw here was regal and untroubled.

The same could be said of Saturday’s final at Roland Garros.

Errani, who had played so well to win the doubles title with Roberta Vinci on Friday, began nervously and made little impression with her service returns — the shot that has served her so well throughout her own surprising run to the final. But, slowly, in the second set the little Italian was able to engage Maria in some of the rallies she enjoys, and everything became a little more difficult. Sharapova served for the match at 5-1 and was broken and then struggled when she tried a second time.

The last game, in fact, produced the best tennis of the match with Sharapova taking herself to match point with a stunning forehand winner on the reach before Errani came up with two beautifully executed drop shots, one of which earned her a break back point. But Sharapova saved that with a backhand winner and then hit a line-hugging ace. Finally, on the third match point, Sharapova was able to force an error out of her opponent and write herself into the history books.

There was a moment of hilarity at the start of the prize ceremony when the announcer described Sharapova as the runner-up. Errani, seeing the joke, raised her arms in mock triumph as Maria laughed.

“It was nice to see her react that way,” Sharapova said. “And, in her speech, it was nice to hear words that were down to earth and real, from a real soul.”

Sharapova did not forget her opponent in her own speech — as some champions have been known to do — and praised the Italian for her fine achievements at this year’s French Open. It is not inconceivable that Errani will be back to win here one year.

But she might have to deal with Sharapova along the way.

“It’s not over yet,” Sharapova said. “I’m not sitting here saying I’m done. There’s a lot more I have to achieve. I always believed I could be a better player, and I always strive to be better.”

She is, however, having a friendly argument with her Swedish coach, Thomas Hogstedt, as to whether she should now have three or four days off. “I’m going for four, he’s going for three which is typical,” she said with a smile. It seems that Hogstedt will get plenty of support from her parents, too.

“I called my mom and she said, ‘Well, enjoy your three days off and then it's back to work!’ Then I called my dad and he’s on the bike, and he’s like, ‘Oh, great job. I’m on the bicycle. Call you later.’ Oh, my family! Great philosophy. Wonderful family support!”

Sharapova can laugh about all this because she would be nowhere without them — nowhere without the father who risked everything by taking his 8-year-old daughter to Florida with no money in his pocket and did menial jobs to feed her; nowhere without the mother who stoically stayed behind in Russia for three years before she was able to join them. It has been their spirit and their desire for Maria to succeed that has enabled her to go on achieving despite the money and the fame that her beauty, almost as much as her tennis skills, have brought her.

Now she is preparing for the grass and the return to that Center Court at Wimbledon, where the dream first took flight. Who knows what else lies in store.

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