PARIS – Maria Sharapova pulled out everything she had, every trick in the book, a season’s worth of fist pumps and every ounce of energy she might have had left the tank after a long, tough road to the French Open final.
And when it was over, the 27-year-old Russian was as emotional she may have ever been after defeating Simona Halep of Romania 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 to win her second career title in Paris.
It was a captivating women’s final on a scorching hot Paris afternoon, the first to go three sets in Paris since 2001, and two minutes short of the all time record of three hours and six minutes set by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Steffi Graf in 1996.
"If somebody had told me that I'd win – 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, one or the other," Sharapova said. "You're not just born being a natural clay‑court player. Okay, maybe if you're Nadal. But certainly not me. I didn't grow up on it; didn't play on it. I just took it upon myself to make myself better on it."
It was not, by most definitions, the popular victory inside Court Philippe Chatrier. The underdog Halep, just 22 and in her first Grand Slam final despite being ranked higher than Sharapova (and that remains true, even after the Russian’s victory) won over a lot of fans with her gritty play.
Sharapova, conversely, put the usual percentage of fans who cannot tolerate her on-court screaming on her back from the start. And the amount of time she took, especially between first and second serves –and even when Halep herself was ready to serve – earned Sharapova some whistles at times.
It did not, however, earn her any kind of sanction from chair umpire Kader Nouni beyond one toothless warning, issued nearly 2 ½ hours into the match.
But Sharapova was doing what she had to do. As they’re wont to say here, “Elle a du métier” – meaning, in this context, "she's got all the veteran moves".
Sharapova looked beseechingly up to her small entourage – coach Sven Groeneveld, physio and therapist – more often than is typical for her.
She fist-pumped after Halep errors; she fist-pumped after her own good shots. She double fist-pumped when it was especially good. She screamed when it was even better than that.
But in the end, she competed with all that she has and everything she is. And when we’re talking about Sharapova, that’s a whole lot.
“It was certainly the most physical, the most difficult one I’ve ever been a part of. It was so emotional, there were so many ups and downs. And it was very exciting for me because I was forced to win it,” she said later. “She played extremely well. It was in my hands in the end, and I had to take it.”
Sharapova has now won 20 consecutive three-setters on clay. But her pattern in this tournament, through the three previous rounds, was to drop the first set and come storming back.
This time, she won that first set. Then Halep looked right back in it in the second. Then she let that opportunity slip. Then Sharapova gave her another chance. Finally, Halep converted it to take the match to a decider.
Sharapova had control over the third set but let that slip away as well. And until the last five minutes, the outcome was very much in doubt.
Sharapova’s serve, always now the Achilles’ heel, acted up spectacularly at the worst moments.
There were 12 double faults, sometimes coming in pairs in the same game. But at the same time, her second serve was on average 20 kilometers-per-hour faster than her opponent’s delivery. And Halep said afterward that the serve had a lot of kick, and was actually difficult to handle.
In those last five minutes, on Halep’s serve at 4-4 in the third, that paid off.
Sharapova fell to her knees on the court after she broke Halep and held her own serve to close it out. She even got some terre battue in her hair as she rested it on the clay. After the handshakes, she returned and fell to her knees once again.
And, of course, she didn’t forget to have physio Jérôme Bianchi hand over her sponsor’s watch for the trophy ceremony. Because you might be over the moon with happiness, but business is business.
For Halep, the biggest question going in was whether she would fall victim to first-time Grand Slam finalist nerves.
To her tremendous credit, she most certainly did not.
“I played really well today. I'm really happy about this,” Halep said. “I think I was okay on court. I did everything I could. It's really tough to play a first final in your career, but it's also amazing to be there.”
Had she not handled it, Halep could well have caved to Sharapova’s dominant presence and palpable, full-bodied will long before she did. It was a star-making, poised debut.
There was one moment when the momentum turned for good – sort of.
At 1-2 in the third set, Sharapova served a long, long game. She was shooting epically sad looks over towards her supporters, looks that almost seemed to indicate she was awfully close to losing her mind over that dodgy serve that she works so very hard not to lose her mind over – even though she probably SHOULD have lost her mind over it long before now.
Somehow, Sharapova held. And screamed.
Quickly up love-40 on Halep’s serve in the next game, she was pumping her fist on every Halep error. On her third break-point chance, she converted and both arms went up as though she’d won the tournament right then and there.
She hadn’t, of course.
Serving at 4-3, Sharapova double-faulted on both the first point and the last point of the game to gave it right back.
But somehow, that moment stirred up something a little extra, and Halep surely seemed to feel it.
There was a decision by Nouni not to replay a point on the first point of the 4-4 game on Halep's serve after a late linesman’s call. The decision was a correct one; Halep had not put the ball in play and the call came too late for her to have been distracted by it. The Romanian caved then, just a little, just long enough for Sharapova to pounce.
“After that, I couldn't manage my nerves maybe and I couldn't stay very focused for the next points,” Halep said. “That's it. That's life.”
As she sat in her chair waiting for the trophies, reflecting upon what might have been, her towel over her head and tears rolling down her cheeks, the Roland Garros crowd changed Halep’s name: “Si-mo-na. Si-mo-na. Si-mo-na!”
“The atmosphere was incredible. Of course, forever I will not forget this match,” she said.
Halep will be back next year, and she won’t even need a large group of Romanian fans to ensure support. She earned a lot of French fans Saturday. And if there’s one thing we know about French fans, they NEVER forget.