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 every one 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."

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.

"Well, I think you saw the level and the quality of tennis that [Halep is] able to produce and has been playing with throughout this whole tournament and this whole year," Sharapova said. "She certainly deserved to be at this stage. She pushed me to the limit today.

"She's been extremely consistent. She's going to be [No.] three in the world now. I think her results speak for themselves. There is a reason why she was out there today and had a huge chance to win."

Sharapova was the No. 7 seed here. She benefited greatly when three players in their early 20s ushered the top three seeds, Serena Williams, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska, from the tournament in the early going. And then Sharapova knocked out three up-and-coming players in succession: Garbine Muguruza (who beat Williams), Eugenie Bouchard and now Halep.

"I can't believe it," Sharapova said, who held the trophy like a baby and rocked gently back and forth. "I never thought seven, eight years ago I'd win Roland Garros more than any other Grand Slam. To think that I've won it two times. I'm so emotional, I can't talk right now."