French Open serves up delectable final
PARIS -- Within a few days of the first serve, the French Open had said au revoir to some of its finest players. Li Na, the No. 2 ranked player and this year's Australian Open champ, lost in the first round. Serena Williams, the defending champion and the No. 1 ranked player, lost in the second round. More top-ranked players soon followed them out of the door.
It was like placing reservations a year in advance for a meal of your dreams at a Michelin-starred Paris restaurant, only to arrive and find that Novak Djokovic just took over ownership and the menu now is limited strictly to gluten-free items. "Sorry, mademoiselle, we are out of crepes, croissants, baguettes . . ."
In the end though, the French Open delivered, just as Parisian waiters do, just so long as you give them enough time. After the disappointing appetizer of those early-round upsets ("What, you're already out of the Williams sisters?"), Roland Garros brought tennis fans a delicious entrée of a rich, rising new generation of players. And then it finished with an amazing dessert in the form of a championship match between one of those great young stars and one of sport's biggest names.
In the second-longest championship match in French Open history -- at 3 hours, 2 minutes, it lasted nearly as long as it takes to get the check in a Paris restaurant -- Maria Sharapova survived the heat, the sweat, multiple double faults and the first three-set final in 13 years to beat Simona Halep 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 Saturday afternoon. When she won, Sharapova dropped to the clay surface that once proved so difficult to her.
"It's the most emotional victory for me,'' Sharapova said of her fifth Slam title. "It's the toughest one physically that I've come across in a final, especially a Grand Slam. There are not too many finals that you get past three hours. 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.
"So much adversity is thrown at you, and I'm just proud I came through and I adjusted in all different situations and I end up with this trophy.''
It is her second French Open trophy. When she won at Wimbledon 10 years ago, who would have expected Roland Garros would be her first multiple Slam title?
"I'm with you on that one,'' Sharapova said. "If somebody had told me that at some stage in my career that I'd have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I'd probably go get drunk. Or tell them to get drunk, one or the other. It's really amazing.''
Almost as amazing as the wine prices in Paris restaurants.
Sharapova once compared her clay game to a cow on ice. But she worked to make herself better on clay until she had an appetite for it, and after Saturday, the most fitting description for her clay game is Rafa-like. Despite her early struggles, since the start of 2012, Sharapova has improved her winning percentage on clay from .771 to .930.
"I feel that I worked to get to this position,'' she said. "There's nothing else. There is no substitute in these titles. You can't just go out there and just do it without putting in the effort, putting in the work. You're not just born being a natural clay-court player. Okay, maybe if you're Nadal. But certainly not me. I didn't grow up on it; didn't play on it. I just took it upon myself to make myself better on it.
"There is no one else that was going to do that for me. I had to do the work.''
She certainly put in the hours. She lost the first set of her previous three matches here and started off Saturday in similar fashion, dropping the first two games. She recovered quickly though, winning six of the next eight games to win the first set, and then took a 2-0 lead in the second set.
But just when it looked like the final would end in a disappointing two sets as it had every year since 2001, the 22-year-old Halep showed why she is leading the wave of young stars that includes Eugenie Bouchard and Garbine Muguruza, plus Americans Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend.
Halep, who has skyrocketed from No. 57 to No. 4 (and soon No. 3) since last year at this time, not only was playing in her first Slam final, but she was the first Romanian to reach the final of a major since Virginia Ruzici in 1980. Despite trailing 2-0 and 4-3, and also down 5-3 in the tiebreaker, she came back to win the second set. She also led the third set 2-1 to bring her fans to their feet, waving Romanian flags and chanting her name until the judge repeatedly asked them to quiet down. They finally did after Halep lost. But only briefly.
"I was crying at the end for a few minutes, and then I was smiling because I said that it was my first Grand Slam final, and I have to be happy, to smile, because I did everything on court,'' Halep said. "I played very good tennis, very good level. So I'm really proud about these two weeks. They were incredible weeks here and incredible tournament. I'm really happy, and it was an amazing feeling on court today.''
While Halep had risen dramatically in the past year, Sharapova had fallen. She was ranked No. 2 when she lost to Serena in the final here last year, but set back by a bad shoulder, she fell to No. 8. But now she has her game back.
"We had really tough moments and so many questions,'' Sharapova said. "At the end of last year I was traveling around Europe, trying to find a solution to getting my shoulder better. I didn't have a coach at the time. When we all got together and little by little started working together, I realized that there was really good energy.''
And she brought it out Saturday when the French Open saved its best for last, like an owner delivering a glass of aged cognac as a freebie.
"There are always the favorites. There are always the underdogs,'' Sharapova said. "There are always the young ones that people are looking towards and believe will be the rising stars. I think this tournament has proven to be that.
"There were some upsets in the beginning. I know from the beginning of the tournament everyone came in my press conference, and the first thing they said, 'Well, you're going to be facing Serena in the quarterfinals. What a tough draw. What bad luck you have.' We hadn't even played the first round yet.
"So from that tough luck in the draw to being the French Open champion is a very nice feeling.''
It is indeed. Let's just hope Wimbledon can match the final meal."Not fish and chips again?!"