Maria Sharapova: Reigning Queen of Clay

Maria Sharapova won the 2014 French Open Saturday, defeating Romanian Simona Halep in three sets. This was Maria Sharpova's second French Open title.

By , Associated Press

Nothing came easily for Maria Sharapova in the French Open final.

Serves hit by her surgically repaired shoulder often missed the mark, resulting in 12 double-faults. Shots that would be winners against most opponents were retrieved by Simona Halep and sent right back. Leads that usually hold up vanished in a blink. On a muggy afternoon, with the temperature in the high 70s (20s Celsius), points were lung-searing struggles.

Sharapova was up to the task. In an entertaining and undulating championship match — the first women's final at Roland Garros in 13 years to go three sets — Sharapova showed that she's as tough as they come, particularly on the red clay that used to flummox her. She edged Halep 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 Saturday to win a second French Open title in three years.

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"This is the toughest Grand Slam final I've ever played," Sharapova said.

It is her fifth major trophy in all. Remarkably, Sharapova owns twice as many from Paris as the one each she won at Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006, and the Australian Open in 2008.

The 3-hour, 2-minute tangle featured too many momentum swings to count, filled with lengthy baseline exchanges, and terrific defense and shotmaking by both women.

Not bad for someone who once famously described herself as feeling like a "cow on ice" when it came to playing on clay, a slow, demanding surface that requires excellent footwork. Now Sharapova knows how to move on clay, and can stretch points when needed. Since the start of 2012, Sharapova is 54-4 with seven titles on clay. She's also won 20 consecutive clay three-setters, including four in a row this week.

"It says that she's very fit. It says that she's very determined," said Sven Groenefeld, Sharapova's coach. "And it says that she never gives up."

Sharapova broke into a huge smile while hoisting the trophy overhead, then shaking it with both hands and scanning a stadium that, improbably, has become hers. This was her third final in a row in Paris: She won the 2012 title to complete a career Grand Slam, then lost last year to Serena Williams, who bowed out in the second round this time.

Sharapova is 20-1 the last three years at Roland Garros — which is nothing compared to Rafael Nadal's 65-1 career French Open mark heading into Sunday's final Sunday against Novak Djokovic, but certainly quite impressive.

"You're not just born being a natural clay-court player. OK, maybe if you're Nadal. But certainly not me," Sharapova said. "I didn't grow up on it; didn't play on it. I just took it upon myself to make myself better on it."

Plus, Sharapova had an operation on her right shoulder, the one she uses to swing her racket, in October 2008. That joint troubled the Russian again in 2013, when she played one match from July to December.

She now travels with a physiotherapist, Jerome Bianchi, and told him during the post-match ceremony, "Thank you for keeping me healthy."

This was the ninth Grand Slam final for the No. 7-seeded Sharapova, and the first for Halep, a 22-year-old Romanian seeded fourth. Supported by a dozen folks in her guest box wearing red T-shirts saying "Allez Simona," and fans that chanted her first name, Halep acquitted herself well, showing off the scrambling baseline style that carried her to six straight-set wins until Saturday.

"I will not forget this match," said Halep, who wiped away tears afterward.

Each time it appeared Sharapova was ready to pull away, she was forced to do extra work.

At 4-3 in the second set, Sharapova held two break points, but Halep saved both with gutsy groundstrokes. In the tiebreaker, Sharapova got within two points of victory at 5-3, but Halep took the next four to claim the set.

That's when Sharapova left for the locker room, taking an 8-minute break during which she changed out of her sweat-soaked outfit — and let Halep stew for a bit. Sharapova went ahead 4-2, but Halep broke back to 4-all.

It turned out that was her last stand, though. Sharapova wouldn't lose another point, gritting her teeth and shaking her fists after breaking at love for 5-4 with a backhand winner, then holding at love by forcing a backhand error from Halep on match point.

When it ended, Sharapova dropped to her knees, caking her shins with clay, and folded her body forward, burying her face in her hands.

"I had good tactics today. I opened the angles. Also, I was hitting the ball strong," Halep said.

But Sharapova, Halep continued, "was moving really well."

Cow on ice?

More like Queen of Clay.

___

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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