Ever since shoulder surgery nearly forced Maria Sharapova into early retirement, she occupied an odd space in both tennis and the wider world of sports. She remained among the most marketable female athletes on the planet, tall and blond and famous, a superstar in every sense except the most important one.
The gap between her game and her fame closed considerably Saturday, closed by virtue of another one-sided affair that left her knees down and crying on the clay, then bounding into the stands, where she hugged her entourage and kissed not one but two babies. After Sharapova dismantled Sara Errani of Italy, 6-3, 6-2, she held aloft the silver French Open championship trophy, for her the most elusive of the major championships.
This triumph gave Sharapova a career Grand Slam, but it meant much more than that. She won her first major title in 2004 at Wimbledon at age 17, then the United States Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. Everything that happened afterward — the shoulder surgery, the reconstructed service motion, the comeback that shocked the tennis world — was as difficult as it was unexpected.
“Most people would have called it a day,” Martina Navratilova, one of the most accomplished tennis players ever, said earlier last week. “She stayed with it. I wouldn’t have thought she was capable of doing that two, three years ago. Great for the sport, I think, and good for her.
“She’s a superstar, and it’s always good if a superstar is on top.”
On Monday, Sharapova will still be the reigning French Open champion, will still remember that tournament officials announced her as the runner-up at the championship ceremony, will still hear the Russian national anthem that played once the confusion was sorted out. She will also ascend to No. 1 in the world, and for those who disagreed with Navratilova’s assessment of Sharapova’s superstar status, it will be more difficult to argue than before.
As they walked onto the court, the contrast between Sharapova and Errani was more than noticeable. It was striking. Sharapova stood nine inches taller and dressed in black, even the usual black visor to shield her from the, well, clouds. Errani wore pink. Sharapova held 103 more Grand Slam match victories than Errani and had earned nearly $17 million more in prize money alone.
The first set carried out along those lines. Sharapova buried Errani with ground strokes and grunts, the former hard and flat and angled, the latter long and loud. Before Errani blinked, Sharapova led, 4-0, her ratio of winners 12 to 1.
“Well, I start very bad,” Errani said after the match. “With this player, if you give her games like this in the beginning, they are more relaxed. I couldn’t play the game that I want to play.”
A day earlier, Navratilova said it would take “a monumental effort” for Errani to contend. The mismatch, as Navratilova saw it, would come on Errani’s serve, her weakest shot, against Sharapova’s service return, her best one.
Midway through the second set Saturday, Sharapova had won 70 percent of the points against Errani’s second serve, as Navratilova had predicted. Sharapova was then more likely to break serve than to hold it, and thus the odds tilted overwhelmingly in her favor.
The scrappy Errani continued to scrap, just as she scrapped all tournament. It had been a career run. Before Tuesday, Errani had squared off against top-10 players on 28 occasions and lost every match. She then toppled two in Angelique Kerber and Samantha Stosur, to add to victories here against Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Next week, Errani will enter the top 10 herself.
On the eve of the most important singles match of her life, Errani played doubles. And she not only played doubles, she won the women’s doubles title, leaving open the possibility that one player would win singles and doubles championships at Roland Garros as Mary Pierce did in 2000, when Sharapova was 13. Better to keep playing, Errani figured, after she captured tournaments in Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest in March and April.
Against Sharapova, Errani again kept playing, saving one match point, then another, but not a third. Sharapova then fell onto the clay, her comeback complete, same as her career Grand Slam.
Michel Spingler, Associated Press, June 9, 2012