No. 2: Last Woman Standing

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What was the Performance of the Year? I’d nominate Maria Sharapova’s long, twisting, very bumpy, but ultimately triumphant run through Paris. Her second title at Roland Garros and fifth at a major may have been the most impressive and characteristic of her career. For the last decade, we’ve been talking about Sharapova’s skill as a competitor; here she showed what all the talk was about by winning her last four matches in three sets. In the first three, she lost the opening set before coming back; in the fourth, her 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 win over Simona Halep in the final, Sharapova did something even more difficult. She blew the second set, after having the championship in hand, yet she came back to win the third anyway. That’s tough.

Sharapova’s win, which lasted for three hours and two minutes in the summer heat, comes in at No. 2 in our countdown of the 10 best matches of 2014. Here are some thoughts on the (well-edited) 14-minute highlight reel above.

*****

—Yesterday I wrote about a classic, fast-paced grass-court encounter between Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams at Wimbledon. This one is at the opposite end of the great-match spectrum for 2014. It’s a dirtballer’s delight, with long, physical rallies that take both women all over the court. Yet those rallies aren’t grinding or dull; both players go for their shots at the first opportunity. Sharapova and Halep pound the corners and open up the court whenever they can on offense, and extend the points for as long as possible on defense. After 35 minutes, the score was 3-2.

—Sharapova would finish the season No. 2 and Halep No. 3. Each was taking advantage of a Serena-less second week in Paris; Spain’s Garbine Muguruza knocked the defending champion out in the second round and opened up the top quarter of the draw for Sharapova. It was the second time in three years at Roland Garros that Serena lost early and Maria cashed in with the title. But this wasn’t the only time that she and Halep would duel in 2014. They played three times, all three matches went the distance, and all three were won by Sharapova after a lengthy baseline tug of war. Maria’s powerfully regimented sense of purpose and Halep’s easy athleticism make for a vivid contrast.

—Maria wins this match and finishes the year one spot higher in the rankings, but it was Halep who was the bigger story over the course of the season. She moved from No. 11 to No. 3 and established herself, at 23, as a near-lock to win major titles in the future. Watching her in these highlights, you get the feeling she always has multiple options with every shot. She can hit to either corner from any position on the court, and she wrong-foots Sharapova numerous times. Halep really begins to turn it on in the middle of the second set, as she steps forward in the court; few players mix offense and defense as smoothly as she does. And Halep shows her own grit here, coming back from a break down in the second, and 3-5 down in the second-set tiebreaker. 

“I’ll never forget this match,” Halep said with a tear afterward. It must have taken everything out of her, yet she bounced back to reach the Wimbledon semifinals. Hopefully she’ll remember this loss as a breakthrough to bigger things, not as a lost opportunity. Maybe she’ll learn that when one player walks off the court after the second set on a hot day, as Sharapova did in this match, you shouldn’t stay, and let yourself stew, on the sideline.

—Sharapova is obviously not as fast or smooth as Halep, but here you can see that she’s not as one-dimensional as many people believe. Early on, she anticipates a Halep down-the-line backhand, moves in that direction, and responds with a winning pass—court sense can make you a faster player than you really are. So can positioning; Sharapova isn't a natural slider on dirt, but she has mastered the open-stance backhand, which saves her a couple of recovery steps. And she’s very good in this match at improvising and making touch shots around the net. Clay requires a varied game, and Sharapova has been tough to beat on clay for the last three years. She now has two French Opens to go with one each at the other majors.

“This is the toughest Grand Slam final I’ve ever played,” said Sharapova, whose game is about grit, rather than the elegance that the Parisian crowd loves. “If somebody had told me 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.”

—Would we recognize a little more nuance in Sharapova’s game if she didn’t shriek so loudly with each shot? It’s possible, but the shrieks aren’t inappropriate to this match, which was tennis at maximum effort for three hours. Here her grunts also served as a good gauge of her nerves; they rise in pitch with her anxiety. I was at Roland Garros for Sharapova’s win in 2012, and I can remember being able to feel how nervous she was from the press section halfway up the stadium. It was also easy to feel Maria's nerves against Halep, in the way she hit the ball, and finally tightened up, at the end of the second set. 

Both times Sharapova hit through her nerves, which may be the most difficult thing to do in tennis. At 4-4 in the third, just when you think she might collapse for a second time, she shakes off the tenacious opponent who has dogged her all afternoon and wins the final eight points by swinging away and swinging freely. Sharapova made winning this Grand Slam look hard; that's only right, because winning the French Open is hard. Maria’s game may not have the gift of beauty, but it does have the gift of truth.


The Top 10 Matches of 2014

No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer at Wimbledon
No. 2: Sharapova d. Halep at Roland Garros
No. 3: Kvitova d. V. Williams at Wimbledon
No. 4: S. Williams d. Wozniacki at WTA Finals
No. 5: Wawrinka d. Djokovic at Australian Open
No. 6: Murray d. Robredo at Valencia
No. 7: Federer d. Wawrinka at ATP World Tour Finals
No. 8: Federer d. Monfils at U.S. Open
No. 9: Kvitova d. Kerber at Fed Cup
No. 10: Nishikori d. Ferrer at Madrid

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