Needing This

by: Steve Tignor | June 09, 2012

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MsPARIS—Maria Sharapova was ahead, and that was the problem. She was up a set and a break on an opponent who appeared to be hopelessly overmatched. She was four games from winning a tournament that few thought she would ever win, four games from achieving something, a career Grand Slam, that no woman in a decade had achieved. How many more chances would she have to complete this historic double, and to do it against Sara Errani, a player ranked outside the Top 10?

The answer, most likely, was none—this was Sharapova’s chance. The thought was enough to make the game’s reigning ice queen crack just a little. Serving at 2-1 in the second set, her customary shrieks took on a desperate tone. Instead of swinging freely, as she had throughout this clay season, she began to muscle the ball. For one of the few times during the day, her service toss went awry. From 40-15 up, Sharapova made three unforced errors—two of which landed limply in the net—to go down a break point.

This time, when she got the balls from the ball kids, Sharapova took a few extra seconds before she turned to face the court. When she finally did, she walked with a firmer step up to the baseline. The shriek she let out on her next forehand down the line still sounded a little frightened, and the swing wasn’t exactly free and easy. But she put the ball on the line. Errani jerked her head up; she couldn’t believe it. Sharapova went on to hold.

This is the way it went for Sharapova on Saturday. There are matches that, afterward, we like to say were “closer than the scores indicated.” Maria's 6-3, 6-2 win over Errani wasn't close—Sharapova never trailed—but it was certainly “tenser than the scores indicated.” From the start, she had to do the tough job. She had to go for the big shots, take the risks, hit the winners. If there’s such a thing as a “pesky wallboard,” Errani is it. To the end, to her last towering, desperation lob return at match point, and her two beautifully disguised drop shots in the final game, the Italian didn’t give an inch or let Sharapova relax for a point.

The stat sheets tell the story of who controlled this match: Sharapova littered hers up with 37 winners and 29 errors, while Errani finished with a tidily conservative 12 and 11 of each. Afterward, Errani credited the champion for her aggression.

“She won many points with the serve, with the return, in the first two or three shots,” Errani said, “so for me it was difficult. I couldn’t arrive to play long points like I want to play, so was difficult for me.”

Sharapova’s most impressive feat was the nervy but stubborn way she extricated herself from the final game. This tournament had begun with a classic 12-deuce closing game between Serena Williams and Virginie Razzano (who, by the way, should probably receive a Rafa-bite-sized piece of the winner’s trophy from Maria), and it ended with something similar between Sharapova and Errani. The tension that had built through the set peaked here. Twice in the second Sharapova had broken her opponent's serve. Twice she had seemed ready to put the match away. Twice the Italian had broken back.

In the final game, Errani saved two match points and hit two drop shot winners. The second one elicited a cry of anguish from Maria—“Ay yi, yi,” she seemed to say as she strained unsuccessfully to track it down. Sharapova countered with two aces, a bullet backhand to save a break point, and, at 30-30, a stunning full-stretch forehand winner that Errani could only stare at before dropping her head. If anyone wanted to know how much better Sharapova moves on clay than she once did, they only have to look at a clip of that shot. If anyone wants to know how much Sharapova wanted this title, they should watch it a third time.

“I’ve moved a lot better from the start of my first tournament in Germany [she won Stuttgart to open the clay season]," Sharapova said. "I just felt more comfortable. I started believing that I could play longer rallies, I could recover better.”

Sharapova went on to talk about what this win meant. It was her first Grand Slam title since she had shoulder surgery four years ago, and it comes after two bitter defeats in major finals over the 12 months.

Se“I proved that no matter how many punches I took in my career,” she said, “I’ve always gotten back up. I never made excuses for me, not to myself, not to people. 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.”

Sharapova is a rich and famous champion, and a great one, but she’s not warm or easily loved—for all of her endorsements, she couldn’t avoid a smattering of sour boos when she was announced today in Chatrier. She’s a pro in an individual sport, and she has the ruthlessness that comes with the job. She doesn’t do tears or hugs at the net, or buddies in the locker room. At the same time, though, Sharapova could have coasted after her first $20 million and her first couple of majors. Instead she hired a new coach and went out on the clay-court road this spring with just him, a trainer, and a hitting partner. Because of that, her victory today feels like a passionate one. It's one that came, more than anything else, from a love for competing, for working, for the sport.

“When your love for something is bigger than all of [the money and fame],” said Sharapova, who called this win the most special of her career, even more so than her 2004 Wimbledon title, “you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it’s freezing outside, when you know 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. You can achieve great things when you don’t listen to those things.”

When it was over, though, and she’d achieved this great thing, Sharapova finally smiled a warm and relaxed smile as she climbed up into the French TV booth above Chatrier. The host offered her a glass of champagne.

“Yes,” a surprised Sharapova said with a laugh, “It’s a good way to start the interview, a little tipsy.”

Still, the unbubbly one wasn’t ready to let loose just yet.

“Is it legal to drink on TV in France?” she asked.

“Everything is legal in France,” the host reassured her.

By the end of the interview, Sharapova had been convinced. After four years, it was finally time to celebrate another Grand Slam win.

“I’m taking the bottle with me," she said.

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