“I found a French school close to my house, and I did private lessons every single day for three months,” she said.
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.
Whipping big serves with that rebuilt shoulder, putting forehands and backhands right on lines, and moving well on the red surface she once worried made her look like a “cow on ice,” Sharapova beat surprise finalist Sara Errani 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,” Sharapova, 25, 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 easily for Sharapova at the start: Wimbledon champion at age 17; No. 1 in the rankings at 18; U.S. Open champion at 19; Australian Open champion at 20. But the shoulder operation in October 2008 made everything tougher. She didn’t play singles from August 2008 until the following May.
“It wasn’t getting better as soon as everyone thought it would,” she said of 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 last July, but she lost. She also reached the Australian Open final this January, but lost again.
Sharapova is unbeaten in 16 matches on red clay this season, including titles at Stuttgart and Rome.
Sharapova was presented with a specially made glass trophy containing a cross-section of a clay court. Marking her completion of a career Grand Slam, it was etched with Saturday’s date, her name, and the years of her four major titles.
“I never thought I would want red clay, but I do. Now I do,” she said.
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 aria-like 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.
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 <0x2014> eager for more tennis, and always ones to back an underdog <0x2014> 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 (178 kph) ace, No. 6 of the afternoon – what shoulder injury? – 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.
About 1½ hours later, at the start of her postmatch news conference, Sharapova was presented with a specially made glass trophy containing a cross-section of a clay court. Marking her completion of a career Grand Slam, it was etched with Saturday’s date, Sharapova’s name, and the years of her four major titles.
“Oh, this is beautiful. I never thought I would get this,” Sharapova said. “I never thought I would want red clay, but I do. Now I do.”