Commentary

A sterling career for Maria Sharapova

Updated: June 9, 2012, 2:07 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- On the surface, Maria Sharapova has it all:

A pretty face. A handsome and famous fiancÚ, former NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, Sasha Vujacic. All the money she'll ever need; at approximately $24 million per year, Sharapova earns more in endorsements than any other female athlete in the world.

She left Russia and began the process of becoming a professional player at a Florida tennis academy at the age of 9. Eight years later she won at Wimbledon and, later, at the U.S. and Australian Opens. In 2008, when her right shoulder -- the fulcrum of all her success -- crumbled, she could have headed for the beach, perhaps contemplated babies and all the fruits of a startlingly young retirement.

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesIt took a lot of mental and physical focus for Maria Sharapova to get back to the top of the women's game.

But she didn't. Sharapova did what she'd always done. She put her head down and grinded. And now, she truly has it all.

On a blustery Saturday at Roland Garros, Sharapova returned to the top of women's tennis. She defeated Italian Sara Errani 6-3, 6-2 in the women's final to capture a rare career Grand Slam. After a sabbatical of four years, she will be the No. 1-ranked WTA player come Monday.

"Yeah, it's surreal," Sharapova said. "It's the most unique moment I've experienced in my career. I never thought I would have that. I thought that when I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most treasured moment of my career.

"But when I fell down on my knees today I realized that this was extremely special, and even more so. Yeah."

The list of excellent players who failed to complete the career Slam by locking down a French Open title is longer than you might think: Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors, Lindsay Davenport, Stefan Edberg, Martina Hingis, Pete Sampras and Virginia Wade. All of these great champions mastered the hard courts of Melbourne and New York and the living green carpet at Wimbledon. But they couldn't get it done on the red dirt at Roland Garros.

How did Sharapova do it? How did she overcome a surface that exposed her greatest weakness (a lack of movement) and blunted her greatest strength (unabashed, pure power)? By learning to pick her spots, and to put a little loop in those famously flat groundstrokes. Playing with a tad more margin in her shots than she ordinarily would have. The forehand winner that delivered her a first match point Saturday followed a credible sliding defensive backhand that kept her in the point.

Sharapova, who has the icy countenance you would expect of someone from Siberia, thawed briefly after her semifinal victory over Petra Kvitova. After sweeping Errani, she ran toward the net and actually slid again and considered sitting. But she thought better of it, then came to rest on her knees. Later, she jumped for joy, spinning around and blowing kisses like a school girl.

During the playing of the Russian national anthem, Sharapova looked down at the sterling trophy in her arms and studied her reflection. That broad smile -- usually an involuntary reaction -- could not be suppressed.

"I proved that no matter how many punches I took in my career, I've always gotten back up," Sharapova said. "I never made excuses for me, not to myself, not to people. I have a tremendous amount of belief and pride in what I do. I love my work.

"I could have said, 'I don't need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams.' But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world, and you seem so small.

"But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."

Although her ability to adapt to clay was impressive, it was hardly her greatest hurdle, as 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova noted a day earlier.

"Coming back from shoulder surgery where most people would have called it a day, she stayed with it," Navratilova said. "I was really impressed with not just the physical and mental focus it takes to rehab and believe and keep coming back and keep doing everything you have to physically, but then to overcome the mental aspects of the game. She completely conquered it, and kudos to that."

In women's tennis, the single most important shot is the serve. In rebuilding her shoulder, Sharapova had to reconstruct her serve -- and resurrect her confidence.

"Obviously she had issues with her serve after she came back, with the bad toss and technique and very predictable on the serve, double faults all over the place," Navratilova said. "When your serve goes, it's so easy to lose the rest of your game. That's much more difficult of a beast to get through than the rehab and the physical fitness. I wouldn't have thought she was capable of that two, three years ago. I don't know if very many people did. She did, that's all that matters."

This was a hugely predictable result.

Errani was playing in her first Grand Slam singles final -- one day after playing in (and winning) her first Grand Slam doubles title. She played 13 matches in 14 days and a total of 286 games.

"I start very bad, so with this player, if you give her some games like this in the beginning, of course, they are more relaxed," Errani said. "In the first two or three balls she play very good and the serve received, so for me it was very difficult to start the point [the way] I want to play the point."

Maybe it's the attrition of playing on clay, but the French Open has a knack for delivering one-sided women's finals. Errani was only the most recent example of French toast; the last 11 finals between women have gone the two-set minimum, going back to Jennifer Capriati's 12-10 three-set win over Kim Clijsters in 2001.

So women's tennis has a new No. 1. Sharapova was aided here by the early losses of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka. The only player she beat who was seeded in the top 20 was Kvitova. They'll all be back for more -- on a surface that suits them better -- in a few week's time when Wimbledon arrives.

"It's not over yet," said Sharapova, who turned 25 in April. "I'm not sitting here and saying I'm done, because I'm far from it. I have a lot more in me to achieve. I believe in my game. I think that's one of the reasons why I'm sitting here with my fourth one and winning Roland Garros, is because I always believed I could be a better player, whether it was on clay, whether it was on grass, whether it was on cement, anything.

"This is what I've always wanted to achieve. No matter how tough it was, no matter how many people didn't believe in me, didn't think that I could get to this point, I didn't care and I didn't listen. I always listened to my own voice, and it always told me that for some reason I'm meant to be better. I'm meant to succeed again.

"And I did."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.