It lasted three hours and two minutes, featured significant reversals of fortune, and gave boosters of both players their share of both encouragement and heartache. It was hard fought and well played, not an epic but a very good tennis match. Some might even call it a great match, although in my view that would be hyperbolic. But it is indisputable that this was highly entertaining stuff, that both players competed honorably, that the outcome was in doubt right up until the very end. I enjoyed it immensely, and appreciated the fighting spirit of both competitors.
In the end, Sharapova came away deservedly with a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 triumph to capture the fifth major singles title of her storied career, and her second on the red clay of Roland Garros. For a player who once seemed ill at ease and out of sorts on this surface, it is admirable that she has become so formidable on the dirt. This was, after all, her third final in a row in Paris. It was also her seventh championship on clay in just over a two year period. Two years ago, Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam by collecting the French Open title, and a year ago she acquitted herself remarkably well before losing to Serena Williams.
This time around, Sharapova found herself frequently on or close to the brink of bowing out of the tournament. She was stretched to three sets in her last four matches, but every time she found solutions to the hard problems presented to her by some obstinate adversaries. In the round of 16 against 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, Sharapova dropped the first set and trailed 3-4 in the second before securing nine consecutive games to win 3-6, 6-4, 6-0. Facing the big hitting and fearless Garbine Muguruzathe women who ushered Williams out of the tournament in the second roundSharapova was beaten comprehensively in the opening set, ceaselessly rocked back on her heels by the pace and depth of the Spaniards return and rally shotsbut the unwavering Russian rescued herself by scores of 1-6, 7-5, 6-1, holding on gamely at 4-5 down in the second set and never looking back. Facing the swiftly improving Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in the semifinals, Sharapova made a similar escape to prevail 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.
Ironically, it was Sharapova who seemed always on the edge of success in the final against the masterful percentage player Halep, who happens to be the most markedly improved player in the womens game of the last year. Sharapova was always building leads but Halep had the resources and the imagination to fight back sedulously and prolong the match. That was what made it all so captivating.
Here was Halep, appearing in her first major final, yet seeded No. 4 and fully capable of taking the title. There was Sharapova, the No. 7 seed, but clearly the favorite. This was her ninth career major final, and she had split the previous eight. She was vastly more experienced and savvy, but Halep got out of the gates a bit more quickly than Sharapova, who had made a habit out of startling slowly in her previous three assignments. In the opening game of the match, Sharapova had a 40-30 lead but double faulted. That mistake was costly, and she was broken.
Halep held on for 2-0. Yet Sharapova took over from there with her decidedly greater weight of shot and her match playing prowess. Sharapova held on at 30 for 1-2 and then broke back for 2-2, converting on her fourth break point by prevailing in an impressive baseline exchange as Halep was coaxed into a backhand crosscourt wide. Sharapova was rolling now, but she was getting pushed hard every step of the way. In the fifth game, she was taken to deuce four times before holding on for 3-2, saving a break point in the process.
Sharapova broke for 4-2 at 15 with some commendable craftsmanship along the way. At break point, the 2012 champion laced a backhand impeccably down the line for a winner. Sharapova held in the following game at 15 for 5-2. She seemed poised to close out the set commandingly, but Halep refused to buckle. She raised her level of aggression from the backcourt to hold at love for 3-5, seizing the initiative in that game. That may have given Sharapova some cause for consternation. Serving at 5-3, 15-30, Sharapova double faulted. Although she saved one break point, she could not wipe away the next one as Halep lured her into a mistake.
Now Halep was serving in the tenth game, hoping to reach 5-5, feeling much better about her chances. Halep was down 30-40 at set point, but asserted herself forcefully, jumping on a short return from Sharapova and drilling a forehand winner into the clear. But Sharapova maintained her poise and her precision off the ground. She took the next two points, stepping up the pace, rushing Halep right out of the set. Sharapova was one set to the good, winning it 6-4.
If history had been an accurate indicator, Sharapova would have gone on to post a straight set victory. In all eight of her previous major finals, she had either won or lost in straight sets. For a long while, that looked as if it would be the case again in this contest. Sharapova held at love to start the second set, and then broke Halep. The Romanian saved a couple of break points but then double faulted her way into a third. Sharapova converted with a trademark inside out forehand provoking a backhand error from Halep. It was 2-0 for Sharapova. She had won three games in a row, and appeared to be closing in on the title.
But Sharapova faltered in the third game, double faulting to trail 0-30. She was broken at 15 when Halep released her own brand of the inside out forehand to draw an error from the Russian. Sharapova lost that game with excessive caution. She should have won the 15-30 point but hesitated on a high ball that she could have taken out of the air as a drive volley. Halep turned that point around and hit a winner, thanks largely to Sharapovas conservative play. Halep held on for 2-2, and the match was very much alive.
Serving in the fifth game of that second set, Sharapova had serious problems on her delivery. She opened with a pair of double faults, both into the net. After rallying to 40-30, she served another double fault long. And yet, Sharapova somehow held on despite those glaring mistakes. The pace of the Sharapova ground game made all the difference; she was dictating to a large degree and shaping her own destiny. Halep was solid and strategically sound, but she was too often at Sharapovas mercy in the rallies. But Halep did begin looking for ways to control rallies from the middle of the second set on. She held for 3-3 at 15, closing out that game with a backhand down the line winner, taking advantage of Sharapovas short return.
Sharapova promptly held for 4-3 and then had two break points in the following game. Halep was bold in both cases, saving one with a forehand winner and the next with a backhand winner down the line. She held on for 4-4 tenaciously. In the ninth game, Sharapova had a 40-15 lead, but wasted it because she once again danced away from her customary instincts and waited for Halep to hand over points with mistakes. Halep broke for 5-4, and served for the set in the tenth game. But her serve is the weakest part of her game. Sharapova was unleashing crackling returns off both first and second serves from the Romanian. She broke back for 5-5, helped by some good fortune. With Halep at 30-40, Sharapovas backhand return clipped the net cord and crawled over for a winner. It was 5-5.
Halep broke again for 6-5, but Sharapova broke back again, this time at love. On to the tie-break they went, and Sharapova seemed certain to end it all right then and there. She moved ahead 4-2, but some outstanding defense from Halep made it 4-3 for the favorite. Sharapova advanced to 5-3, and stood two points away from a second championship. Sharapova was serving the critical ninth point, and she went for a crosscourt winner off the forehand on the run, narrowly missing it wide. Halep then made it to 5-5 with a cagey short crosscourt forehand angle that drew an error from Sharapova. From 5-5, Sharapova surprisingly made two straight unforced errors, driving a routine forehand return long, sending a backhand down the line wide.
Halep had handled the pressure with composure and pride. She was at one set all. After a ten minute break, play resumed, and Sharapova reignited her game in a hurry. She easily broke in the first game of the final set, but then her serve deserted her again. She was broken at 15, double faulting twice in that game. Halep held on for 2-1, and Sharapova was fighting furiously to regain her bearings in the fourth game. She had a 40-15 lead and three game points before Halep twice got to break point. The loss of that game might have been irretrievable for Sharapova, but she saved both break points with firm authority and conviction, taking matters into her own hands. She closed that crucial game with a sparkling forehand down the line that was unanswerable, and drew level at 2-2.
That brave stand was just what Sharapova needed. She broke at 30 in the fifth game for 3-2, adding velocity to her backhand to finish off that game. Serving at 3-2, Sharapova was letter perfect, holding at love with four outright winners, three off the forehand, one off the backhand, moving to 4-2 with that scintillating tennis.
Halep was serving at 2-4, 30-30, having just double faulted. But she held on from there to close the gap to 4-3 for Sharapova. Now Sharapovas nerves resurfaced. At 4-3, 30-40, she double faulted. Halep had made another spirited comeback, and the contest was improbably locked at 4-4 in the final set. But Sharapova was saving her best for last. She broke at love in the ninth game, unleashing two dazzling winners, reaching 0-30 with a running forehand acutely angled crosscourt, sealing the 0-40 point with a backhand crosscourt into an open space.
Serving for the match, Sharapova was unshakable when it counted the most, holding at love. The point of consequence came at 15-0 when Sharapova stepped in and played a forehand swing volley for a winner. At long last, after all of the lost opportunities, after being two points from a straight set win, after many frustrations, Sharapova came through at the end in style, making more history with her triumph. Despite no fewer than 12 double faults— four in every setSharapova had fashioned a victory. She made 52 unforced errors, 21 more than the tidy Halep. But Sharapova released 46 winners, 26 more than the overpowered Halep. In the end, that might have been the most telling statistic.
No Russian playerman or womanhad ever won the same Grand Slam tournament twice. Sharapova maintained her pattern of winning all of her majors in even numbered years, with the previous victories occurring in 2004 (Wimbledon), 2006 (U.S. Open), 2008 (Australian Open), and 2012 (Roland Garros). Yet Halep also made history of a high order for her nation. The last Rumanian player to reach a major singles final was the charismatic Virginia Ruzici, who exploited her ferocious forehand to win Roland Garros in 1978. The only other Romanian major title singles victor was the incomparable Ilie Nastase, the U.S. Open champion of 1972 and French Open winner in 1973.
Presenting the trophies for the women was none other than Chrissie Evert, who won a womens record seven French Open singles titles, recording her first victory forty years ago. Sharapovas first comments before the ceremony for television were gracious and accurate. She said, This was the toughest Grand Slam final I have ever played. All respect to Simona. I thought she played an unbelievable match.
That was clearly the case. For Sharapova, though, it was an unbelievable tournament, culminating with four consecutive three set victories. That is a rare feat last realized by Sue Barker in 1976 at this same major, and a tribute to Sharapovas robust nature and unbending pride as a competitor. Losing to Halep after being on the verge of a straight set win would have been a crushing setback, but somehow Sharapova regrouped down the stretch and emerged victorious. This one has to be particularly gratifying. After losing the final to Serena Williams here a year ago, she was beaten early at Wimbledon, missed the U.S. Open with an injury, and fell in the round of 16 at the Australian Open.
The 27-year-old Sharapova was durable and resilient. She has played better tennis and been more convincing, but never has she worked harder or battled back with more spunk than she did this time around at Roland Garros. She is the most marketable female athlete in the world, but her drive and determination never seem to wane. Maria Sharapova is an extraordinary tennis champion, and my feeling is that this will not be her last major title triumph.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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