There were injuries. There was inconsistency. There were critics. There were insults. There were meltdowns. And then there was the career Slam. How can you possibly find a pattern here? By brushing aside Sara Errani 6-3, 6-2 to win her first French Open title and become only the tenth player in history, and sixth in the Open Era, to win all the four Majors, Maria Sharapova has defied belief, odds, history and just about every other thing there is to defy.
This was not how it was ever supposed to be for the Russian. This was clay, a surface on which she moved like a self-proclaimed ‘cow on ice’, and this year’s claycourt season was coming on the back of a string of bad losses in tournament finals which seemed impossible to shrug off. There were her own lapses in form that were even further cause for worry. After her potentially career-ending shoulder surgery back in 2008, Sharapova never really seemed to have regained her trademark groundstroke precision; shots that used to paint the lines earlier now flailed inches, sometimes even feet wide. And that serve seemed like an insurmountable obstacle; there was just no stopping the double faults. Still, if she had to, by some miracle, add to her Slam collection, the fast courts of Wimbledon or US Open or the comfortably-bouncing ones of the Australian Open seemed to be the only possible settings for that miracle. Winning at Roland Garros, where even her hardest-hit shots could be retrieved and used against her? You had to be out of your mind to predict something like that.
And yet here we are, with Roland Garros turning out to be the setting for her to not only bag the one significant trophy missing from her cabinet, but also return to the throne of the No. 1 ranking, a throne she had vacated more than four years ago. How did she put all the negatives behind her and come up trumps in the end? It’s simple, really. She fought.
When Sharapova realized that a new crop of young players had come up who could hit the ball just as hard as her but run considerably quicker, Sharapova worked hard on her movement. She was determined to not be a ‘cow on ice’ forever, and she learnt how to slide on clay. She added the slice forehand to her repertoire and strove to improve her defense – she would be damned if wrong-footing and drop shots were going to get the better of her every freaking time.
When the whole world lambasted her serving woes, she blocked out all the criticism and fear, and continued to back herself on second serves. She refused to roll in slower, ‘safer’ second serves that would be swatted away by the return-of-serve experts prowling the women’s tour today, and insisted on aiming for the lines instead. The double faults continued, but so did the free points she won from strong second serves that did go in.
When people decried her sometimes cringe-worthy, low-margin unforced errors, she simply dialed up the power, going from offense to more offense, ensuring that for every unforced error that she made, she’d hit at least one winner. She trusted her power and eye enough to know that the line-painting groundstrokes would return sooner or later, and that she’d just have to learn to survive until they did.
When her critics questioned the legitimacy and innocence of her on-court shrieking, she gave them the cold shoulder, steadfastly maintaining that shrieking was as much a part of her natural game as was blasting the cover off the ball. She had assistance in this battle from outgoing Word No. 1 and fellow shrieker Victoria Azarenka, but in the WTA there is no such concept as friendly alliances – each woman stands for her own self, and no one else’s.
Sharapova has fought it all – first the injuries, then the inconsistencies, then the serve, then the criticism, then the beat-downs handed to her by Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon 2011), Azarenka (Australian Open 2012) and Serena Williams (pretty much everywhere), and now, finally, the surface that once seemed so alien to her. It’s only fitting that she has been rewarded with the No. 1 ranking for her efforts.
To put Sharapova’s feat into perspective, she has joined a select, very elite group of players to have achieved a career Slam in the Open Era – a group that consists of Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King. What makes this achievement even more impressive, though, is a look at the roster of players who couldn’t do it – Justine Henin, Venus Williams, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati…the list is as long as it is illustrious. After all the setbacks, all the doubts, all the struggles, Sharapova now has something that can never be taken away from her – something that has etched her name in a very rarefied section of the record books.
Like everything about her life, Sharapova was the consummate professional during the trophy presentation ceremony in Paris. She first congratulated her spirited yet overmatched opponent for a fine tournament, then thanked the crowd (even breaking into a little French, much to the spectators’ delight), then praised her team for their unswerving support and assistance, all in perfectly appropriate words. But when the presenter asked her whether she was going to celebrate her victory tonight, Sharapova hesitated for a moment, as though fully taking in her tremendous achievement for the first time. Then, she came up with two words that could sum up everything about Sharapova – her unyielding fighting spirit, her boundless aggression, even the way her shots explode through the court.