French Open: Maria Sharapova—Born to Be a Champion

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By Bill Simons

“We’ll always have Paris.” That’s what they say.

But for 13 lean years, Paris wouldn’t have us.

Since 2001, when Jennifer Capriati beat Kim Clijsters 12-10 in the third set, the women’s finals here—and often in the other Slams—have been as flat as a Alfred Gratien Cuvee Paradis Brut NV Champagne left in the sun for far too long. But today, at last, Paris, the reluctant lover, said, “Yes, tennis, here is your classic—enjoy!”

Here were Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep, two sublimely intense battlers. On one side, the veteran heavyweight, playing her third straight French Open final, with her step-into-it arsenal of deep, flat shots— the former “Cow on Ice” who has milked her career for all it’s worth. On the other, a gutsy young 22-year-old from a distant country—a Romanian with a Martina Hingis-like sense of the court and its many angles, not to mention a championship mettle that had collected seven titles in less than a year.

On this bright Saturday, rabid Romanians were lost in their Halep-mania, intense photographers were crammed tightly courtside, elegant ushers wore black dresses, the mighty were decked out in pearls, and humble kids screeched loudly high up in the bleachers, delighting as seagulls swept high and umpire Kader Nouni’s trademark baritone voice dipped deep.

As Sharapova soldiered on, the struggle intense, my mind also went deep, into memory, recalling a time ten years back, when teen Maria, then a wisp of a prospect—lean and free—beat Serena Williams to win her first Grand Slam. After her Wimbledon triumph, there was one man I wanted to talk to, her Dad.

Yuri Sharapov was even a bigger press-hater then Pete Sampras’ reticent pop, Ted, or Jimmy Connors when he was on the warpath. He was the guy to talk to, the Svengali who set Maria on her winning path. But certainly he wouldn’t open up to some spunky American.

Still, up I went to the friends box, and by some miracle, I soon found myself nose-to-nose with the intense Russian. This was my chance, just one question.

“Yuri,” I began, “What makes Maria Sharapova such a good player?”

“She was born to be a champion,” he said.

That was it. Oh crap, I thought. What a waste!

But, not really—upon reflection, Yuri said it all.

Born in Siberia, Maria is the toughest—and by far the most successful—of three generations of fierce Russians. She has a game face that would please a linebacker: steely, imperious, unblinking. On the court, she is deep into her own world, her laser-like focus on victory doubling as another part of her arsenal. Her stylized stretch-the-rules service routine is a stand-alone ritual.

Three times in a row at Roland Garros this year—against veteran Sam Stosur and newbies Garbine Muguruza and Genie Bouchard—Maria lost the first set, and struggled with one of the game’s fundamentals, her serve. In similar situations, other players would shrink and shrug to certain defeat.

Not Maria. This player doesn’t so much “stroke” her way to victory, she wills herself to it. You sense it, you see it, and yes, you hear it. Claw, grunt, fist-pump, always present and in the moment. One withering stare after another, cold and penetrating, says it all: “Don’t mess with Sharapova.”

Sharapova, the professional warrior, has and will do anything to succeed. She left her home for America, and then went from Florida tennis factories to California drillmasters.

Maria overcame devastating shoulder problems, which sidelined her for long stretches, and diminished her serve. It once was a weapon, but now is a problematic adventure. Once lost on clay, she worked oh-so hard to be patient, to slide, to construct points. What an exceptional adaption.

Unbelievably, the once-awkward player is now the best in the game on the slow stuff.

These days, it seems nothing but Serena stops Maria. A FOP (“Friend of Putin”), more than any other figure, she is popular in both America and Russia, where she carried the torch into the Olympic stadium earlier this year. What other woman is so successful in sports and commerce?

But could Sharapova succeed in winning her fifth major and second French Open? At first, it seemed doubtful. She would have to face Serena in the quarters. Then Williams lost early. Next, she had to grind through three successive marathon three-setters. Certainly, she would be drained. Plus, she would face a rising star, one who had yet to drop a set in Paris.

Halep moves like the breeze, knows the court, and can strike the ball early or late. She creates mean angles and outmaneuvers many a foe. Just ask Sloane Stephens, who won only seven games against her in the fourth round.

Halep has trended upward like no other recent young player. Her rise has an uncanny regularity. Last year, she was the only player, male or female, to win titles on hard courts, clay, grass, and indoors. This year, she continued her winning ways, taking the title in Doha and reaching the final in Madrid.

But there, she lost to Sharapova in three sets. Some guessed that surely Halep, like so many others making their first Slam final appearance (Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic, Sabine Lisicki) would understandably be a wreck stepping onto the grand stage of a Slam final.

Yet it was the Romanian who drew first blood, breaking in the opening game. Steeling herself, Sharapova soon broke right back. Dominating when she had time, Sharapova, tall and lean, smashed her flat shots, pinning the brave Halep into corners and building a 5-2 lead. She seemed in control, ready to pull away and impose her mighty will.

But then Maria got generous, hitting one of a dozen double faults and soon stroking a forehand wide. Halep streaked back, and one began to wonder whether Sharapova would hold true to her dismal pattern of losing the first set.

From the outset, this was a high-level battle, the points long, with Halep scampering brilliantly to run down Maria missiles. Brilliantly, and with some grace, Halep moved from defense-to-offense. She waited on her strokes, and was hard to read. Where’s she going next?

A master at stopping momentum, Maria finally broke Halep to claim the first set, 6-4, then quickly broke her again to go up 2-0 in the second. She was on a roll, the final now in her considerable command. Shine that trophy—Maria’s future was bright.

Somehow, Halep came roaring back, saving break points, breaking Maria with regularity. The crowd chanted “Simona, Simona,” as she raced back to claim a 6-5 lead.

But Maria—well, she is Maria Sharapova—broke her foe at love to force a tiebreak. Certainly, the Russian, who’d dominated the recent tiebreaks she’d played, would now excel. And she did race to a 5-3 lead, just two points from victory.

However, this match defied any simple logic. Mini-break followed mini-break, and Halep charged back once again, taking advantage of Sharapova errors to win four straight points and claim the tie-break, 7-5.

Yet again, Maria would be playing a three-set match. But not to worry, she had won 19 straight three-setters on clay. What a battler—clutch!

Yes, she uses every tactic, shamelessly extending the time between points, and taking a long comfort break after the second set. She also benefited from key let cords and questionable line calls. But the good make their own luck.

After so many three-setters, one wondered whether Maria had grown weary. Yet somehow, she called upon a new energy, slight but decisive. Remember, her will is a weapon. She broke Halep in the opening game of the third set, only to be broken back once again.

Still, few players can put setbacks out of their minds as swiftly as Maria. She just stares deeply into her racket strings and briefly goes deep within a place only she knows: a mini-meditation.

The Russian saved two vital break points with sublime groundies at 1-2, and then used a laser cross-court backhand to claim a vital break and go up 3-2. But the “break feast” would go on, as Halep fought back to even the deciding set 4-4. In the end, though, Simona could take only so many body blows and fight off the great champion.

After umpire Nouni correctly settled a line-call dispute on the first point at 4-4, everything changed—and quickly. Sharapova broke Halep at love to go up 5-4. In the next game, when a Halep backhand return drifted haplessly wide, Maria finally knew the 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 triumph was hers.

The 3:02 marathon was the second-longest women’s final in French Open history. But victory came in a flash—Sharapova won the last eight points of the match.

Flooded with relief, she crouched low to the clay she had grown to love, and then climbed to the friends box to hug the team that was so instrumental in her success. She was subsumed with glee, hugging the trophy.

Meanwhile, Halep was in tears, heaving in sorrow. But as she wept, covering her face with a towel, the compassionate throng again began to chant “Simona, Simona,” as if to remind the kid that she will always have Paris, this moment, this day, this memory. And yes, young woman, remember this: there is no shame in losing to a fierce lady who, Papa Sharapov once told us so knowingly, “was born to be a champion.”