PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 09: French Open women's champion Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen near the Eiffel Tower after her victory earlier in the day in the women's singles final against Sara Errani of Italy during day 14 of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 9, 2012 in Paris, France. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Sidelined in 2008 by a right shoulder that needed surgery, putting her tennis future suddenly in doubt, Maria Sharapova decided to use the free time to study a new language, the one spoken at the only Grand Slam tournament she had yet to win.
"I found a French school close to my house," she recalled, "and I did private lessons every single day for three months."
Sharapova cut short those classes when it was time to begin the slow, painful rehab process and get her shoulder back in shape. About 3½ years later, on Saturday at Roland Garros, Sharapova put all of that hard work to good use on the most important clay court there is -- and even trotted out a little French during the victory speech she often wondered if she'd ever get a chance to deliver.
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Whipping big serves with that rebuilt shoulder, putting forehands and backhands right on lines, and even moving well on the red surface she once worried made her look like a "cow on ice," Sharapova beat surprise finalist Sara Errani of Italy 6-3, 6-2 to win her first French Open title and become the 10th woman with a career Grand Slam.
"It's a wonderful moment in my career," the 25-year-old Sharapova told the crowd in French, before switching to English to add: "I'm really speechless. It's been such a journey for me to get to this stage."
So much came so easily for Sharapova at the start: Wimbledon champion at age 17; No. 1 in the ranking at 18; U.S. Open champion at 19; Australian Open champion at 20. But a shoulder operation in October 2008 made everything tougher. She didn't play singles from August 2008 until the following May, when her ranking fell to 126th.
"It wasn't getting better as soon as everyone thought it would," she said about her shoulder. "That was the frustrating thing, because it was like, 'When is this going to end?' "
It took until her 10th post-surgery Grand Slam tournament for Sharapova to get back to a major final, at Wimbledon in July 2011, but she lost. She also reached the Australian Open final this January, but lost again.
There's something apropos about Sharapova's fourth career Grand Slam title -- and first since her shoulder was fixed -- coming in Paris, rounding out the quartet at a spot that always seemed to present the most difficulties. Her powerful shots lose some sting on clay, and the footing can be tricky for anyone who didn't grow up on the rust-colored stuff.
A global celebrity with millions of dollars in endorsement deals, Sharapova put herself through the grind required to get back to the top of her sport -- and to get better than ever on red clay.
She's unbeaten in 16 matches on it this season, including titles at Stuttgart and Rome.
"I could have said, 'I don't need this. I have money, I have fame, I have victories, I have Grand Slams.' But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world, and you seem so small," said Sharapova, who will return to No. 1 for the first time since June 2008 in Monday's WTA rankings. "But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."
Errani, for her part, never paid attention to those who said a 5-foot-4½ woman couldn't possibly compete against the very best in tennis. Posing at the net before the match, the 6-foot-2 Sharapova towered over her opponent -- then was head-and-shoulders above Errani when play began, too.
"I started badly, and that's what bothers me the most," said the 21st-seeded Errani, who admitted she was overcome by nerves at the outset. "You can't do that against players like her, because she was only going to get better once she loosened up."
Born 10 days apart in April 1987, both trained as kids at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida (Errani says she lost badly in their only head-to-head match there; Sharapova says she has no recollection). Both were playing in the French Open final for the first time.
The similarities end there, though. Sharapova was playing in her seventh Grand Slam singles final; Errani in her first, although she did team with Roberta Vinci to win the women's doubles title Friday. Errani was 19-18 for her career in major tournaments before these wonderful two weeks; Sharapova was 122-32.
Plus, Errani lost all 28 of her career matches against top-10 opponents until beating No. 10 Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals and No. 6 Sam Stosur in the semifinals, after victories over past French Open champions Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova in earlier rounds.
It was hardly shocking that the second-seeded Sharapova raced to a 4-0 lead within 14 minutes. Or that she produced 12 of the match's first 13 winners. Errani was able to make things more interesting when she managed to stretch points longer and longer, consistently coming out on top when exchanges lasted more than 10 strokes, her staccato grunts of "Heh!" contrasting with Sharapova's shrieks an octave or two higher.
As lopsided as the eventual result was, Errani made Sharapova earn it with winner after winner, and a 37-12 edge in that category.
"She hits very hard, very flat and very deep shots, barely over the net. She never let me do what I wanted to do. I always felt like I was being pushed around," Errani said. "I didn't play my best, but she also deserves credit for that."
Serving for the championship, Sharapova faced one last gut-check.
Maria Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam by earning her first French Open championship on Saturday. But does that place her among the all-time greats in women's tennis? Vote!
She frittered away one match point by shoving a forehand long, and Errani took the next point with a bold drop shot. Facing break point, Sharapova hit a backhand winner. Moments later, Errani saved Sharapova's second match point, with yet another superb drop shot.
The French fans -- eager for more tennis, and always ones to back an underdog -- began chanting, "Sa-ra! Sa-ra!"
"I started to laugh," Errani said later. "It seemed surreal -- to play against Sharapova, on center court, a full stadium, everyone yelling my name."
That turned out to be Sharapova's cue. She got her third match point with a 110 mph ace, No. 6 of the afternoon, and this time converted when Errani's sliced backhand hit the net.
Sharapova dropped her racket, covered her face with her hands and fell to her knees, muddying them with clay. Soon enough, she was cradling the silver champion's cup and biting her lower lip while listening to the Russian national anthem.