Wind blew in her face, kicking up flecks of clay, and Maria Sharapova stood at the baseline, knowing she needed one more point to reach her first French Open final and return to No. 1 in the rankings.
She rotated her right shoulder, the one surgically repaired 3 1/2 years ago, and served a fault.
Her next try found the mark: a second-serve ace at 104 mph that landed in a corner. It was a fitting way to close out a 6-3, 6-3 victory over No. 4-seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic in the semifinals at Roland Garros on Thursday, a fitting way to announce that Sharapova is once again at the height of her powers and at the top of her sport.
”It’s a long road back; it’s a long process. It’s a lot of days of frustration and uncertainty, not knowing if you’ll ever get there, not knowing how much you want it, not knowing whether (there) would be a moment like that for you again,” Sharapova said at her news conference, the WTA’s glass vase signifying her No. 1 status sitting inches away.
”So there’s definitely a lot of tough things you have to go through to get to this point. But when you get here, and you look back at the things that you did, and the work that you put in, and the toughest days that you can remember, it’s all really worth it.”
On Saturday, the second-seeded Russian will face 21st-seeded Sara Errani of Italy for the French Open title. It’s the only major tournament Sharapova hasn’t won; she can become the 10th woman to complete a career Grand Slam.
”I was in a position a few years ago where I didn’t quite know if I would ever be here again on this stage, playing professionally. And not just at that, but at a level to get to No. 1 in the world and a first Roland Garros final for me,” Sharapova said. ”So a very special day, no doubt.”
Errani felt the same way.
Playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, she beat reigning US Open champion Sam Stosur of Australia 7-5, 1-6, 6-3.
”Players like Sharapova, Serena Williams — they’re accustomed to making it this far,” said Errani’s coach, Pablo Lozano, who held his 10-month-old son while cheering in the stands. ”For us, every day brings a new surprise.”
Indeed, it’s been quite a two weeks for Errani, who will play in the women’s doubles final on Friday with Roberta Vinci against Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova.
Entering this tournament, Errani was 0-28 against women ranked in the top 10. But she beat No. 10 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals, then No. 6 Stosur on Thursday — and those upsets were preceded by victories over two past French Open champions, 2008’s Ana Ivanovic and 2009’s Svetlanta Kuznetsova.
Did she ever doubt she could beat the best?
”It’s not a question of believing or not believing,” Errani said. ”I don’t think about that. I just think about playing. I just think about going on court and giving my all. And whatever happens, happens. I’ve never thought, ‘I can’t beat someone in the top 10.’ ”
Errani never made it past the third round at a major tournament until getting to the Australian Open quarterfinals in January, and attributes her surge this season to switching to a racket with a longer handle. At only 5 feet 4 1/2, she found she couldn’t counter the power that a lot of the game’s elite — and taller — players, like the 5-8 Stosur, generate from the baseline.
”My arms wouldn’t get longer,” Errani joked, ”so I got a longer racket.”
The start of her semifinal was delayed by rain for more than an hour, so Errani listened to music and took a nap on a couch. She came out a bit edgy, losing the first two games, but quickly turned that around, even though plenty of her serves came in at about 70 mph. Unable to overwhelm foes, she beats them with tactics, finding all the right angles.
”She uses what she’s got. She gets the most out of herself, I guess,” said Stosur, whose 48 unforced errors were more than twice as many as Errani’s total. ”Without being able to hit too many winners, she does what she does very well.”
Hitting winners is not a problem for Sharapova. On a wet and blustery day, she managed 15 — five more than Kvitova.
But it wasn’t easy for Sharapova to make her way back after having her shoulder fixed in October 2008.
Aside from the hours of rehab, she was forced to adjust her service motion, a work-in-progress that still leads to double-digit double-fault totals.
”The day that I got shoulder surgery, I knew (serving) was something I’m going to be working on and trying to get back for a very long period of time,” she said. ”I mean, it was the most painful shot for me before I had to get surgery, and I knew that it could have still been painful after. It certainly was for a period of time.”
In the men’s semifinals Friday, No. 1 Novak Djokovic faces No. 3 Roger Federer, and No. 2 Rafael Nadal plays No. 6 David Ferrer. Djokovic is attempting to become the first man in 43 years to win four consecutive Grand Slam titles; Nadal is bidding for a record seventh French Open title.
Sharapova, of course, would be thrilled to grab her first trophy at Roland Garros.
At the start of her career, success arrived so quickly and, it seemed, effortlessly. She won Wimbledon at age 17. Made it to No. 1 in the rankings at 18. Earned her second Grand Slam trophy at 19, and her third at 20.
But the shoulder operation put a halt to all of that. She didn’t play singles from August 2008 until the following May, when her ranking fell to 126th.
It took until her 10th Grand Slam tournament after surgery for Sharapova to get back to a major final, at Wimbledon last year, where she lost to Kvitova. There was another final at the Australian Open this year – and another loss, this time to Victoria Azarenka, who has been No. 1 since.
Now 25, Sharapova is No. 1 for the first time in nearly four years.
And she gets another crack at a Grand Slam title, something she couldn’t be certain would happen.
”I have played tennis since I was 4 years old. I committed myself to this sport. I’ve always loved what I did,” Sharapova said. ”When it was taken away from me for a while, that’s when I realized how grateful I was and how lucky I was to be playing it.”