Queen of Clay

Saturday, June 07, 2014 /by

PARIS—When that last, desperate Simona Halep retrieve on an afternoon brimful of them fell outside the sideline, Maria Sharapova fell to her knees, a French Open champion for the second time in her life. She covered her face, and allowed her head to fall to the red clay. Then, after the perfunctory handshake, she returned to that kneeling position, this time wantonly flinging her arms to the sky.

By then, Halep was sitting in her chair, shedding tears she would be no more able to hold back than a tide of penetrating forehands that continued to flood the court even when Sharapova’s game seemed certain to ebb. Halep put a towel over her head, and she bit her lip. Meanwhile, Sharapova scaled the wall behind the baseline and waded through well-wishers and onlookers, intent on reaching her support team. When she met them, they formed a scrum, danced and shouted in each others’ faces.

Halep still sat there, under the safe canopy of her towel. But then a few fans began to chant: “Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na! Si-mo-na!” Others joined in. It was a fitting tribute to the indefatigable, 5’6”, 132-pound Romanian who had traded punches with one of the most punishing hitters in the history of women’s tennis for over three hours and barely came up short. She came into the bout determined to open up the court, and did so with great success.

But noble as her effort was, this day belonged, finally and definitively, to Sharapova, who always found a way to counteract Halep’s strategy. She did so by hitting the reset button on points, forcing them to go on, or by turning the tables completely with an outright winner, usually with a down-the-line forehand or backhand. She imposed her big game and won the match, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4. It was the first three-set French Open women’s final since 2001, and it was well worth the wait.

Wrapping her arm around the trophy as if she were afraid it would grow legs and jump off the podium in the press room and run away, Sharapova sighed and said: “It's the most emotional victory for me. The toughest one physically that I've come across in a final, especially a Grand Slam. There are not too many finals that you get past three hours. . . (and) I would come through against an opponent that makes you play and hit and run and hits so many shots. I'm just proud I adjusted in all the different situations and I end up with this.”

Halep has climbed to No. 4 in the world rankings, four notches above Sharapova (at the moment). But the discrepancy is explained partly by the fact that the 22-year-old Romanian has been playing here, there, and everywhere, building the portfolio that would position her to contest her first Grand Slam final here today.

Any notion that Halep would be in over her head, mentally and emotionally as well as physically, was dismissed immediately, as she broke Sharapova in the first game. Sharapova broke back three games later, and by then the terms of the match were set.

This would be a fierce, high-quality conflict played out from the trenches at either end of the court, the women each striking laser-like groundstrokes and scrambling point after point to retrieve and return them in kind. They managed to make roomy Court Philippe Chatrier look too small. My notes when Sharapova broke back for 2-all and then snapped off an easy hold posed the question, “Can she keep this up?’

The answer to that one turned out to be an unqualified “You bet!” I might have asked the same of Halep, only to get the same answer. Sharapova hit 46 winners today, 30 of which poured off her racquet from the forehand side. That’s an impressive number, even for someone who likes to dictate play and has an almost eerie ability to play her best when the walls appear to be caving in all around her.

Unless your name is Serena Williams, it’s impossible to avoid being cast as the counter-puncher against Sharapova. But despite that, and in spite of her obvious physical limitations, Halep herself managed to fire 20 winners. The interesting stat is that each woman made a hefty number of unforced errors: 52 by Sharapova, 31 by Halep. Neither wasted much time prudently waiting for her opponent to slip up. Instead of squirt guns, these two were dueling with fire hoses, and the water pressure was set to high.

Sharapova broke Halep for a second time in the first set to go up 4-2, but Halep rallied with a break of her own to get back on serve at 4-5. But Sharapova closed out the set with another break. These frequent shifts of momentum would go on for most of the rest of the match.

“She has very strong mental,” Halep said of Sharapova afterward. “She's a strong person. Her style is like—looks like the strong person she is, because she hits always very strong the balls. And also in important moments she's hitting very strong. I think I'm also good at mental. I'm very strong, and I tried just to stay very close to her during the match. I did very well.”

Time and again, the composure or game of one or the other would crack, but she would come back from the brink and deliver yet another deadly and often unexpected blow. The best example of this was the second-set tiebreaker, which came into play after Halep’s resolve cracked when she twice had the opportunity to serve out the set after three consecutive breaks from 4-all.

The first five points of the tiebreaker were all errors, but then Sharapova took control with a mini-break for 4-2. It appeared that she might have the match salted away when Halep drilled a forehand into the net to give her rival a 5-3 lead with another serve to come. But Halep forced another rally that ended with a forehand error by Sharapova, and from 4-5, Halep held twice thanks to Sharapova errors. That left Sharapova set-point down, and Halep won it when Sharapova drilled a down-the-line backhand just wide of the line.

“Just when I thought I was very close to winning it, I lost four points in a row.” Sharapova said. “Then you find yourself in a position where you feel like you're starting over, which is quite difficult. I just took a moment to reflect and try to think of the things that I was doing to hurt her and the things that were giving me an advantage in the game.

“I knew that she was playing well, and despite all that—despite that it was a very physical match, I still wanted to continue to try to do those things well, no matter how frustrating it was to lose that second set.”

One of Sharapova’s great talents is the ability to pick herself up and dust herself off whenever she’s been knocked down. It helped her maintain an ever so slight and often ragged edge in this match. The fourth game of the final set was telling in that regard.

The women opened the third set exchanging breaks. Halep then experienced one of her many resurgences and held easily for 2-1. In the next game, Halep had two break points, but she made an error with the forehand on the first and Sharapova hit a down-the-line forehand winner on the other. She saved the game, then broke to inch back ahead. It was a lead she never relinquished.

Sharapova has played some amazing clay-court tennis recently. She’s now the owner of a 20-match winning streak, has won 26 of her last 27, and she hasn’t lost a three-set match on clay since this tournament in 2010.

She professes to be as astonished by these numbers as anyone else is.

“If somebody had told me that at some stage in my career that I'd have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I'd probably go get drunk. Or tell them to get drunk, one or the other. 

“Yeah, it's really amazing. . . (But) I feel that I worked to get to this position. You're not just born being a natural clay-court player. Okay, maybe if you're Nadal. But certainly not me. I didn't grow up on it; didn't play on it. I just took it upon myself to make myself better on it.”

Halep admitted that it was a difficult moment for her under that towel at the end of the match. “I was crying at that moment for a few minutes,” said. “And then I was smiling because I said that it was my first Grand Slam final, and I have to be happy, to smile, because I did everything on court good. I played very good tennis, good level.”

Still snuggling with the trophy later, Sharapova was asked about her “relationship” with it. “It's cute,” she answered whimsically. “But I don't get to keep it actually. The one I get to keep is really like mini-me—cutie patootie. Yeah, I wish I could keep the big version, but it's probably too expensive.”

Somehow I have a feeling that she could afford it, but she knows better than anyone that it’s something just money can’t buy.

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