Maria Sharapova sunk to her knees on the red clay at Roland Garros, held her head in her hands, then got up and jumped around the court.
A backhand into the net by her Italian opponent, Sara Errani, handed the Russian her first French Open title, and a complete set of major tennis championships at the age of 25.
Sharapova had achieved worldwide fame and became the world’s highest-paid female athlete when she won Wimbledon as a teenager in 2004. A US Open title followed in 2006, and an Australian Open in 2008, before a potentially career-ending shoulder injury forced her off the tour for nine months.
“I thought that when I won Wimbledon at 17, that would be the most treasured moment of my career,” Sharapova told reporters with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen (French Open trophy) by her side after beating Errani 6-3, 6-2. “But when I fell down on my knees today I realized that this was extremely special, and even more so.”
Sharapova’s victory — she produced 37 winners, almost three times more than her opponent — made her only the sixth woman since tennis turned professional in 1968 to complete the career Grand Slam of having won all four majors at least once.
The Siberian-born player moved to the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida at the age of seven, and she honed her game on fast US hard courts.
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Roland Garros was always the most difficult one to win for the 6-foot-2 Sharapova, who once said she moved on slow red clay like a “cow on ice.”
“Maybe less people will say that now,” Sharapova says in an interview with a small group of reporters two hours after her victory. “I have certainly improved my movement on the clay, especially last year and this year. And that’s helped me tremendously, giving me confidence mentally, knowing that I am able to recover from one match to another, getting myself back into the points, it’s extremely important.”
Her love for the game had kept her going when a torn rotator cuff forced her out of the Beijing Olympics, the 2008 US Open and the 2009 Australian Open.
“I never felt like anything gave me the joy as when you are fighting to get a match point in the finals of a Grand Slam,” says Sharapova, who took French lessons and started to design shoes for Nike Inc. subsidiary Cole Haan while she worked on her recovery.
Her injury could have been career-threatening, she says. “First, I was misdiagnosed, and I was playing with these tears for four months,” Sharapova says. “Every time I’d hit a serve, I would get the sharpest pain in the shoulder. People were saying I had inflammation which was really frustrating because I knew that there was something more to it. It wasn’t getting better as soon as everyone had thought it would. That was the frustrating thing, it was like, when is this going to end?”
Surgery followed in October 2008, and she returned to the tour in May 2009. After her comeback, Sharapova was forced to change her service technique to protect her shoulder, which occasionally led to matches with double-digit double faults.
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At the start of 2011, Sharapova left long-time coach Michael Joyce to work with Swede Thomas Hogstedt, whom she embraced on the court after winning the French Open. She thanked Joyce in her on-court speech for his support.
Under Hogstedt’s guidance, Sharapova has become a much more consistent player, reaching the semifinals in Paris last year as well as runner-up spots at Wimbledon and Melbourne.
Sharapova’s rise back to the top of tennis is seen as a good thing for women’s tennis, which has been criticised for lacking a strong leader. Four different women won the titles at the major last year.
“She’s a superstar, and it’s always good if a superstar is at the top,” says Martina Navratilova, who held all the majors at the same time after winning the 1984 French Open. “Coming back from shoulder surgery where most people would have called it a day, she stayed with it. I was really impressed.”