It wasn't easy, but Maria Sharapova finally has gotten one for the thumb.
Ten years after bursting onto the scene by winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old, the Russian superstar has finally won her fifth Grand Slam title. On Saturday at Roland Garros, Sharapova took out 22-year-old Simona Halep in an epic three-hour encounter, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4.
With this tenacious victory, Sharapova earned her second French Open title and continued to move her way up in the list of all-time greats.
This win moved her ahead of Kim Clijsters on the list of most Grand Slam titles in the Open Era and leaves her tied with Martina Hingis in 11th place. She is two majors behind Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Evonne Goolagong on the list, but she's the only one of that group with a win at every major.
The most impressive thing about Sharapova in this match, and throughout the fortnight, was her fight. Beginning with her fourth-round match against 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, every single one of Sharapova's matches has gone three sets. In the fourth round, quarterfinals and semis, Sharapova got off to a slow start and had to recover from a one-set deficit.
This final against Halep was a different story, though.
After a tight first set that saw both players playing their best tennis, Sharapova looked to have gotten control of the match with a 6-4, 2-0 lead. But really, the match was just beginning.
In her first major final, the deceptively powerful and creative Halep was far from overwhelmed by the occasion. The Romanian broke Sharapova three times in the second set and served for the set twice before finally taking it in a tiebreaker.
After a sometimes brilliant, always testy third set, Sharapova broke Halep at 4-4 and then was able to serve out the championship with ease. That in itself was a surprise, considering Sharapova served 12 double faults in the match.
When she finally converted match point after three hours and two minutes, Sharapova assumed her traditional victory pose by dropping to her knees and burying her face in her palms.
Immediately after the match, Sharapova confirmed that it was the toughest Grand Slam final she's ever played—it's her only one, win or lose, that has gone three sets. She also joined the rest of us in being amazed that she now has more titles at the French Open than she does at any other Slam. Via Douglas Robson of USA Today Sports:
This is the toughest Grand Slam final I've ever played. All respect to Simona. I thought she played an unbelievable match today.
I can't believe it. I never thought 7-8 years ago that I would win more Roland Garroses when I was 27 than any other Grand Slam.
To think that I won it two times – I'm so emotional I can't even talk.
It took Sharapova 10 trips to Roland Garros to make it to the final, but she's now been a fixture in the championship match for the last three years.
Clay used to be the surface that the Russian was the most vulnerable on, but since she shored up her footwork and fitness after her shoulder injuries, it has become her best surface. Seven of her last eight titles have come on the dirt.
Before the final, Christopher Clarey of The New York Times sat down with seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert to discuss how Sharapova has improved on the clay in the past 10 years.
In 2004, she was slight to the point of being spindly, and instead of sliding into her shots like a true clay courter, she would take a couple of abrupt, often imprecise steps after contact in an urgent attempt to change direction.
"She dictates the middle of the court a lot better now and she moves in aggressively, and it seems like she was a little more passive 10 years ago," Evert said. "But the biggest difference I see in her moving is her recovery — recovering from wide shots and getting back into the court."
Sharapova's determination to succeed on clay is a huge part of what makes her such a special champion. She simply doesn't accept her limitations—she fights through them. Even when she's far from her best, she can still gut out a victory.
When the rankings come out on Monday, Sharapova will be back up to No. 5 in the world. She had fallen all the way down to No. 9 earlier in the year, due to missing the second half of 2013 with a shoulder injury and initially struggling during her comeback this season.
Slowly but surely, she's moving up the pantheon of tennis greats. While she is a decade removed from her first Grand Slam, she's still only 27 years old. If she remains healthy, she will have a few more prime years ahead of her. Her already impressive resume is sure to grow.
Halep was a more than worthy opponent in the championship match. With her stellar movement, ability to effortlessly hit winners from all over the court and insatiable defense, the young Romanian brought out the best in Sharapova's game and helped create one of the most memorable women's Grand Slam finals of the decade.
The young Romanian will be ranked No. 3 on Monday and will hopefully be a fierce rival and major contender for years to come.
But this Saturday was all about Maria Sharapova. Like a fine wine, she just keeps getting better with age. It's not luck or talent, though. It's sheer force of will.
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