Sharapova digging the dirt these days

So, to review, 27-year-old Sharapova has won at Roland Garros twice in three years. If you saw that coming, you might want to consider a career on Wall Street or in Las Vegas. On Sunday, Rafael Nadal contemplates his ninth title in 10 years, but a victory by Halep would have made her the eighth women's champion in the past eight years.

Which underlines Sharapova's achievement. She has made herself into the best women's player on clay in the world.

Her serving, after career-threatening surgery in 2008, is still something scary to behold -- and not in a good way. She had nine double faults in the semifinal and threw in a dozen in the final, three of them in a single game. Which, it must be noted, she won.

Ordinarily, Sharapova hits the ball hard and flat. On this day, she came out throwing changeups. Taking a little something off, she fed Halep a steady sequence of spin and even hit a few short, angled forehands, the kind Roger Federer loves to employ.

It didn't work especially well because Halep won Sharapova's first service game when the Russian leaned into a midcourt backhand and stroked it long. Halep, standing right on the baseline, did what Halep always does -- hitting consistently deep groundstrokes and moving Sharapova methodically from side to side. The question going forward: Could Sharapova find a way to end points by relying on her superior edge in power?

The answer arrived swiftly; Sharapova stoked a risky, off-balance forehand winner that clipped the line to collect her fourth break point and leveled the match at 2-all when Halep's backhand sailed wide. Sharapova, swinging bigger and bigger, started wearing Halep down and forcing mistakes. She won four straight games before Halep held quickly and got the set back on serve, thanks to a double fault and an errant backhand.

Facing her second set point, Halep's nerves betrayed her when she yanked a forehand well wide. It was the first set she dropped here, after going 12-for-12. Sharapova, who had lost the first frame in her three previous matches, probably welcomed the odd sensation of being a front-runner.

She broke Halep in the very next opportunity; the Romanian couldn't get around on another forehand fastball, and the ball sprayed wide. It was 2-0, and the match seemed to be effectively over -- but, of course, it wasn't. Halep broke right back to get on serve.

She did it again with Sharapova serving at 4-all and, suddenly, was serving to level the match. Just as quickly, Sharapova broke her back -- when a shot hit the top of the net and dribbled over. The break-fest continued when Halep converted her third break point when Sharapova's backhand went long.

Serving for the set a second time, Halep shrank from the moment, going out in love when Sharapova almost struck her with a close-range overhead. And so it went to a tiebreaker, which was decided by two Sharapova errors.

The critical break came with Halep serving at 2-all in the third. A running backhand (which for this match is redundant) was wide, and the question loomed: Could Sharapova serve it through? Uh, no. Her 12th double fault made it 4-all.

Naturally, the Russian broke Halep at love and stroked two of her best winners of the day, one from each side. And Halep had no answers left.

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