Sharapova digging the dirt these days


PARIS -- A decade ago, when she won Wimbledon at the age of 17, it seemed Maria Sharapova was destined to collect multiple titles at the All England Club.

In 2006, when she became the US Open champion, it was easy to picture her as a winner's circle regular in New York. The same was true when she lifted the trophy two years later in Melbourne.

That was six years ago. The only Grand Slam singles title to come her way since was a delightful surprise at the 2012 French Open, an achievement that looked like an anomaly at the time. For Sharapova is not a classic European clay-court player. In fact, clay serves as an allergic reaction to her massive game. On clay, she was awkward and ungainly, her big, bold strokes blunted by the soft dirt.

But Sharapova figured it out. She evolved. Sharapova learned how to maneuver on the slippery slope, when to unleash her power. Although others slide gracefully, she almost careers across the court. It's not the beautiful game, but it's effective.

This, Simona Halep learned on a toasty, tasty Saturday in the women's final of the French Open.

Sharapova, who had been living dangerously in the second week of this fortnight, survived her fourth consecutive three-set match -- this one a rare scintillating and exhausting women's finale at Roland Garros. The score was 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4, and the conclusion of the 3-hour, 2-minute match brought Sharapova to her knees.

"The toughest one physically that I've come across in a final, especially a Grand Slam," Sharapova said afterward. "There is not too many finals that you get past three hours.

"With all that said, you know, to look back seven or eight years and to think that I would be in that position, I would come through against an opponent that makes you play and hit and run and hits so many shots and recover in conditions that start from cold to being warm today."

Halep, a 22-year-old Romanian, did not look like a woman playing in her first Grand Slam final.

It was the first three-set women's final here in 13 years, since Jennifer Capriati skated past Kim Clijsters 12-10. This was the second-longest women's final here ever. In 1996, Steffi Graf needed two more minutes to defeat Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

"Is my first Grand Slam speech," Halep said, "so emotional for me. I hope to have many more. But this one will be special for me all my life."

Sharapova's ruthless determination is encapsulated in this formidable feat: She has won 20 consecutive three-set matches on clay. For her career, Sharapova is 142-43, sturdy stuff, indeed.

She was presented the winner's trophy by Chris Evert, who won the first of her seven titles here exactly 40 years ago.

"It's such an emotional victory for me in my career," Sharapova said. "You know, I have been in many Grand Slam finals, and everyone feels very different. I feel like as I get older I appreciate those situations so much more.

"When it's over, after it being such an emotional match, everything just kind of lets go. You just realize you won another Grand Slam, and Roland Garros at that."

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