Maria Sharapova Must Eliminate 1st-Set Struggles to Win 2014 French Open Final

Joseph ZuckerFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 05:  Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates victory during her women's singles semi-final match against Eugenie Bouchard of Canada on day twelve of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

We get it, Maria. You can win three-setters. When you take on Simona Halep in the 2014 French Open final, you can go ahead and win in straight sets if you want.

Seventh-seeded Maria Sharapova was for the most part dominant in her first three matches at Roland Garros, losing 10 games in six sets. Upon meeting No. 19 Sam Stosur in the fourth round, something changed. Sharapova's successes have come with a little more effort.

She dropped the first set against Stosur, Garbine Muguruza and Eugenie Bouchard before recovering in the second and third sets en route to victory.

After her semifinal win, Sharapova went with the "It's not how you start; it's how you finish" cliche, per Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline:

Judy Murray thought that playing in such high-pressure situations helped illustrate the 2012 French Open champion's mettle:

The way in which Sharapova has dug down is encouraging. She's shown that she can not only steamroll her opponents but also outlast them if necessary.

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim praised her ability to do whatever it takes to win:

The popular narrative is that Sharapova is a reformed dirt-o-phobe and has transformed herself into a clay-court specialist. The numbers don't lie: She has won 53 of her last 57 on clay. But it's not because she added a kick serve or leavened her power with spin or dramatically improved her locomotion. No, it's mostly because she plays with a certain bloodless efficiency. She talks often of her fondness (need?) for competition. And it shows in her play. So often, she simply will not permit herself to lose. It's seldom graceful or pretty. But she makes damn sure she's on the left side of the "d." in the match score. And, one suspects, it will happen again in Saturday's final.

However, too many close calls could end up being an ominous sign. In the final against Halep, Sharapova might not get so lucky.

As good as she has played, the 27-year-old Russian star has had a relatively easy road so far in Paris. Bouchard was the lowest seed—18th—she's faced so far. She avoided top-ranked Serena Williams, third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and eighth-seeded Angelique Kerber.

Halep will be by far her sternest test of the tournament.

The two have met on three occasions, with Sharapova winning each time. The most recent matchup came back in May in the final of the Madrid Open. Halep won the first set 6-1 before dropping the next two 2-6, 3-6.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

While Sharapova cruised in the final two sets, it was the first time that she had shown any sign of vulnerability against Halep. Perhaps if the 22-year-old Romanian hadn't lost five of six break points and lost 42 percent of her first-serve points, she might have made the match closer and possibly pulled it out.

She seems to have come out stronger as a result of the loss.

Halep's been on the rampage in Paris, taking the minimum 12 sets to dispatch her six opponents so far in the French Open. Andrea Petkovic nearly took the second set in the semifinal, but Halep won a tiebreak en route to becoming the first female player since Justine Henin in 2007 to make the final without losing a set.

Looking at their respective roads to get here, she and Sharapova create quite a contrast going into the final:

In Saturday's match, Sharapova can ill afford to start as slowly as she has in her previous three wins. The more she slips up, the more Halep's confidence will grow.

The Romanian has never appeared in a Grand Slam final before, so it's fair to say that she'll likely have some nerves early on in the first set. If that fear factor starts to evaporate, Halep can get into a comfort zone and use her impeccable defense and movement to her advantage.

If she works Sharapova around the court, that could wear down the four-time Grand Slam winner. Playing three three-setters in a row is bound to take a physical toll on a player, no matter her conditioning levels.

In terms of sheer talent and experience, Sharapova gets the early edge. However, if she helps out Halep with a sluggish first set, the young Romanian just may finish the job herself.