• French Open, Day 14

Injury hell makes defining win sweeter for Sharapova

Alex Dimond June 9, 2012
Maria Sharapova has fought back from injury to complete the career grand slam © Getty Images
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Maria Sharapova had started to get used to being presented to the crowds as the runner-up after a grand slam final, but surely she didn't expect it after defeating Sara Errani 6-3 6-2 to clinch the French Open on Saturday.

Fortunately it was just the mistake of an absent-minded court announcer this time but, after losing in the final of the Australian Open to start 2012 and last year at the same stage at Wimbledon, Sharapova can be forgiven if she panicked for a split second.

But maybe it was fitting that the 25-year-old Russian was made to wait a little longer to have one of the most important wins of her career officially confirmed - after all, she had already been forced to wait four often agonising, sometimes painful years to finally win another grand slam.

From the 17-year-old who stunned the world at Wimbledon in 2004 and had won three of the sport's four biggest tournaments by the age of 21, it has been a long and not always easy path to the career grand slam she finally completed at Roland Garros.

"It's the most unique, surreal moment. I never thought I would have it. When I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most cherished moment of my career," Sharapova reflected. "But when I fell to me knees today on the court I realised that winning here was extremely special, even more so."

She will sit down later - at least, once the media engagements are completed and the endless lines of well-wishers are suitably negotiated - as a grand slam champion and the world No. 1 female tennis player.

She was in the exact same situation four years ago after triumphing at the Australian Open, except back then she was also suffering from a nagging pain in her shoulder.

That nagging pain would turn into a major problem - a torn rotator cuff that would require major surgery and an uncertain future in the sport. Few sportsmen (or women) bounce back from such a procedure, at least not to their former level. Sharapova, then just 21, had age on her side - but then again if her body was already breaking down under the stresses of relentless professional tennis, how likely was she to stay injury free when - if - she returned to the fray?

Rotator cuff injuries are considered the death knell for baseball stars, gymnasts and others who rely heavily on the shoulder and the range of movement for their craft. Tennis, in that regard, is similarly arduous.

Nevertheless, Sharapova was determined to try - what else exactly was she going to do? But targets set during her rehabilitation kept being missed, and her return to action didn't come with a matching return to former glories.

After missing the 2008 US Open and 2009 Australian Open to recuperate from surgery, she reached the quarter-final at the French to give herself a much-needed dose of encouragement. But from there she would go seven slam events without getting beyond the fourth round, as her former level of performance seemed desperately out of reach.

"No matter how many punches I took, I always got back up again"
- Maria Sharapova

"I set myself certain goals," she noted in 2011. "I never really met any of them, to be honest. There were many: when I wanted to come back, how I wanted to feel, where my pain level was.

"So that was frustrating. You're going to have certain doubts when you go through something like that knowing that not too many players have recovered fully."

Bowed but unbeaten, Sharapova stuck to her guns and gradually, slowly, things began to improve. A return to Roland Garros in 2011 brought a semi-final run - before the familiar green grass of Wimbledon sparked her to a final appearance that was only soured by an inspired Petra Kvitova.

Flushing Meadows and the US Open saw her ousted in the third round to Flavia Pennetta (after a three-set epic) but she made the last two once again at Melbourne to kick off 2012. It always looked likely that Roland Garros or Wimbledon would prove great chances at returning to the winner's circle - as it proved, she took the first available opportunity.

"During the injury process, I was setting a lot of timetables for myself, and I never really met those goals," Sharapova said ahead of last year's ultimately unsuccessful final appearance at Wimbledon. "I don't think there's a certain point where you say, 'Oh, I'm back.'

"I mean, I don't have that much self-esteem. I don't think anyone really does."

Now, however, she can confidently say she is 'back'. Perhaps more accurately, she can say she has arrived - again.

Maria Sharapova with her trophy © Getty Images
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With victory on Saturday she joined a group of just nine other women who have claimed the career grand slam. It is an illustrious group - from legends like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to modern stars like Serena Williams - and one you do not join without being of the highest standard.

The challenge now is to push on, to pick up more titles and further etch her name into the fabric of women's tennis. Great players, like Sharapova, win once on all surfaces - but the true legends, the Grafs and Navratilovas, do it time and time again.

She has time on her side and, on the evidence displayed on Court Philippe Chatrier, once again has the fitness and shot-making too. This is a landmark victory, but it is not the finishing line.

When you are determined to push yourself - to stare down a potentially career-ending injury in the pursuit of further excellence - there never is a finishing line.

"It's been a long journey, I started from such a young age, but I'm not done yet, far from it," Sharapova observed after her comeback win. "I have a lot more to achieve.

"No matter how many punches I took, I didn't care. I always got back up again. There were no excuses.

"I could have said I had enough when I was injured. I could have said I have enough money and fame but, when your love for the sport is bigger than those things, then you still get up to practice when it's freezing or when others have no belief.

"No matter how tough it was or if people didn't believe in me, I never listened. I only listened to my own voice which told me that I would succeed again - and I did."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk