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French Open

Sharapova stayed strong through tough times

June 9, 2012 04:27 PM
Sharapova put in the hard work and was rewarded with the career Grand Slam.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
 
PARIS  - Maria Sharapova's 6-3, 6-2 final round victory over Sara Errani in the Roland Garros final was never really in doubt as it was clear that if she played up to her level she would have too much for the feisty Italian.
 
And that she did, cracking one winner after another, destroying Errani's serve, hitting behind her or through her, doing everything she had to do to win the contest.
 
After the victory, she dropped to the ground in joy, got up, pogo sticked up and down and displayed about as much joy as any player has ever showed on Court Philippe Chatrier.
 
After more the four years, she had come out of the Grand Slam wilderness, won the only major that eluded her and took the biggest clay court title in the world, one surface that many believed she did not have strategic or physical ability to win on.
 
Combine that with the fact that it took a good two years for her shoulder to heal post her 2008 surgery and another year after that to firm up her strokes and she score the most significant win of her career.
 
"It's surreal," she said. "It's the most unique moment I've experienced in my career.  I never thought I would have that.  I thought that when I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most treasured moment of my career.  But when I fell down on my knees today I realized that this was extremely special, and even more so."
 
While Sharapova was looked at as one of the favorites coming into the tournament as she had won the red clay titles in Stuttgart and Rome, she was not a clear cut favorite as Serena Williams had dominated her since the Russian's 2009 comeback and was in her quarter. Then there was Victoria Azarenka, who had bullied her in the Australian Open and Indian Wells finals. Moreover, while Sharapova had largely been a second week fixture in Paris since 2003, it seemed that every time she reached the late stages of the event, she would tire and begin to spray balls around.
 
But she had begun to prove to herself in 2010 when she wrested with four-time champion Justine Henin and then in 2011 when she played eventual champion Li Na tight in a two-set loss in the semis that she might have more than a puncher's chance at the title.
 
"I've improved little by little," she said. 
 
"I had really difficult matches in previous years at Roland Garros, but I feel like maybe the match I ended up losing was against Justine, I took her to the third set and I had many opportunities in that third set, and she, at the time, was the best clay court player.  During that match I felt like, I retrieved many balls back, I made her play, I felt like I was really in the game, and I didn't feel like she was that much better than me during that match despite all her success on clay. And I didn't have much. Maybe that was a moment where I felt like I would have a chance one day."
 
Sharapova refused to say that Serena’s shocking first round loss would give her the keys to Roland Garros kingdom. So she bore down, cracked her first three opponents and then in the fourth round, she was frequently pushed around by the hard-hitting Czech Klara Zakopalova in a three hour victory. It was then she decided that she needed to push forward inside the baseline  and she did, knocking out the strong Estonian Kaia Kanepi, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and then Errani and her Cinderella story without dropping a set. 
 
It seemed like no one could hold more than one game straight against her as she was burying returns to the corners. And with her 2009-2010 serving woes behind her, she was able to take soft returns off her first serves and crush them wherever she wanted to.
 
"I didn't play a great fourth round here," she said. 
 
"I felt like I had three good matches and then my level dropped a little bit in that fourth round.  I improved from that. I came out of the match, and I said, you know, I have a chance; I'm in the quarterfinals; I have to step it up. I can't play like this if I want to win this tournament. So that was something that I was just happy with."
 
At times during her comeback, 2006 US Open champion Sharapova was in danger of becoming a secondary player. Her serve was often a liability, her forehand was sporadic, she wasn’t sure whether she was quick enough to play well inside baseline and defend against laser shots that might come back against her. But while some players say that they are always trying to improve and fake it, she really did and now is a much better all around player than she was even before her shoulder surgery. Her serve will likely never be as big as it once was, but her lower body is substantially stronger, which allows her to get to balls she once could not, her footwork is lighter so she has any easier time setting up for shots, and while she was always a fighter, she has a greater sense of herself.
 
She was pretty proud of herself when she lifted the Suzanne Lenglen Cup on Saturday, and rightfully so.
 
"I proved that no matter how many punches I took in my career, I've always gotten back up," she said. 
 
"I never made excuses for me, not to myself, not to people.  I always relied on my own talent, on the help of my team. At the end of the day, that's really what gets me through and gets me up. I have a tremendous amount of belief and pride in what I do.  I love my work.  I've always said this:  I love playing tennis. I had so many outs in my career.  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. But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."
 
 

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