Feat of Clay: Sharapova found unexpected sanctuary at Roland Garros

Feat of Clay: Sharapova found unexpected sanctuary at Roland Garros

She once called herself a “cow on ice” when it came to her clay-court tennis. But when Maria Sharapova called it a career in late February, tennis’ 21st-century Ice Maiden was remembered, among other things, as a clay-court maven.

Maria Sharapova, who retired without fanfare in late February at age 32 after struggling with injuries and eroding form for most of the past two years, was renowned for her droll wit—a talent that stood in stark contrast to her unambiguous, aggressive game.

Four years ago, in a press conference to announce that she faced a doping suspension, Sharapova assured reporters that she wasn’t about to declare her retirement in a downtown Los Angeles hotel “with this ugly carpet.” On another occasion, when a reporter attempted to bond with her by revealing that his own daughter also liked the book Pippi Longstocking, Sharapova quipped, “Great, maybe we can start a book club.”

But the remark that proved to have the longest shelf life, as well as the most relevance to her career, was one she made almost 14 years ago at the French Open following a tidy, second-round win over American veteran Jill Craybas. Of playing on the red clay, Sharapova said that the slippery nature of the surface made her feel “like a cow on ice.”

The image vividly sums up the challenge that players like Sharapova, who prefer the sure footing and predictable bounce of hard courts, and the relative quickness of grass, face on slow, slippery clay. But in the late stages of Sharapova’s career, the bon mot came to symbolize something entirely different. It became less of a joke Sharapova told on herself than a tribute to her diligence, zeal for competition, and fearlessness.

That’s because that proverbial cow morphed into a tigress, and the ice was transformed into the tall grass of the veld.

Sharapova’s greatest weapon on clay wasn’t tactical or physical, but rather mental: her unwavering belief. (Getty Images)

Sharapova’s father Yuri brought her to the United States from their native Russia in 1994. She has permanent resident status in the U.S., but has identified as Russian throughout her entire career. (She carried the Russian flag in the 2012 Olympic games.) The family faced financial straits in the early years, which many pundits believe helped implant Sharapova’s precocious drive and discipline.

Whatever the motivational fuel, Sharapova belted her way to overnight stardom 16 years ago at the age of 17 with a sensational upset of Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final. That triumph, just the fourth title of Sharapova’s budding career, made her just the second woman in the Open era—Martina Hingis was the first—to secure the most coveted title in tennis at such a young age.

Preternaturally poised, statuesque and, we would learn, extremely marketable, Sharapova rapidly compiled honors. She became the first Russian to reach the No. 1 ranking, she would win 34 singles titles, and she held the top spot in the WTA rankings on five different occasions.

Yet for all the achievements she logged over the course of her 19-year career, Sharapova never finished as the year-end No. 1, and her Grand Slam haul pales in comparison with her quartet of career-Slam peers. Her output, five major singles titles, is 13 fewer than the next lowest tally, held by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. One of the chief reasons: Sharapova’s game had a brittle quality. Her swing-for-the fences style scored big at times, but it also produced abundant unforced errors and double faults, tennis’ version of strikeouts.

The greatest curb on Sharapova’s success proved to be the same woman who had inadvertently helped catapult her to fame. Serena took that 2004 Wimbledon defeat to heart. It sowed the seeds of what would become a fierce rivalry, if that word can be applied to such a one-sided battle, colored by an animus the women tried to conceal but which periodically leaked through the veneer of their professionalism.

Williams won 20 of their 22 meetings, seven of them in Grand Slam tournaments, year-end championships or the Olympic Games. Her only loss to Sharapova after that Wimbledon final was later that same year, at the season-ending championships.

Luck undeniably broke Sharapova’s way to facilitate her watershed win in 2012. She played just one opponent ranked higher than No. 21, No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova, who herself had struggled on clay. Sharapova whacked Kvitova with ease, 6–3, 6–3, to set up a final against first-time Grand Slam finalist Sara Errani. The diminutive Italian was 0–28 against Top 10 players at the start of the tournament. (Getty Images)

Three major singles titles, Sharapova’s tally after winning the 2008 Australian Open at age 20, was nothing to scoff at. But over the next 15 Grand Slam tournaments, she would reach just one final. When Victoria Azarenka kicked off the 2012 season with a bold TKO of Sharapova in the Australian Open final, some felt that the game was leaving Maria behind.

At that juncture, Sharapova was a player in sore need of a game-changing statement. The one she produced at the French Open would resonate in tennis history and establish her legacy. And having won a title at each of the other three majors, it all but enshrined Sharapova in Newport.

Sharapova’s shortcomings on clay once were conspicuous. Her game was rooted in power and shotmaking; clay is kinder to players who value consistency over a desire to end points quickly. Her serve, while a great weapon, wasn’t always reliable, a handicap due in part to her damaged right rotator cuff.

Her movement was tailored for hard-court success, she was rangy and fast but not quick, and she had trouble mastering the signature move of an accomplished clay-courter: the ability to slide into shots and then seamlessly execute a swift change of direction.

But Sharapova worked diligently on the mechanics and, just as important, continued to believe in her game.

“I’ve definitely progressed and improved [on clay], that’s no secret,” Sharapova said in Rome in 2015. “[But] It was not an overnight success.”

After final-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami, Sharapova found a winning formula on clay. She won Stuttgart and Rome, two top-tier tune-ups, and dropped just one set en route to the final at Roland Garros. There, Sharapova mercilessly lashed at 5’5” Sara Errani’s weak serves, and easily secured her career Slam with a 6–3, 6–2 blowout.

“We’ve had champions in the past not be good on a surface, whether it’s the Spaniards on grass or the Americans on clay,” Lindsay Davenport, an American Grand Slam champ who struggled on clay, told the New York Times after Sharapova’s 2014 French Open title. “Most of the time, players just throw the towel in. . . what Sharapova has done is amazing.” (Getty Images)

“It’s the most unique moment I’ve experienced in my career,” Sharapova said afterward. “I never thought I would have that.”

The whole in this case was more than a sum of the parts. The win vaulted Sharapova into the company of just the four other women in the Open era who had completed a career Grand Slam—a feat that Hingis, among many other esteemed Grand Slam champions, never accomplished.

Nor could Sharapova, or anyone else, predict that she would also go on to play the next two finals at Roland Garros. She lost the 2013 decider to—who else?—Serena, but rebounded to bag her second title with a win over Simona Halep in a high-quality final in 2014.

Sharapova wouldn’t win another major after 2014, despite her mightiest of efforts. But that was alright. Her French Open run revived a flagging career and landed her in the Hall of Fame, a place more fitting for a tigress than a cow.