Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Sharapova cherishing her No. 1 ranking
By Joanne C. Gerstner
PARIS -- It had been less than two hours since Maria Sharapova fell to her knees, overcome with emotion, from winning her first French Open title.
Two hours since her tennis résumé changed forever, thanks to her becoming only the 10th woman in tennis history to win all four Grand Slams. Only Roland Garros was missing, and Sharapova won that championship through two weeks of dominant tennis.
Sharapova, who had changed into street clothes and taken her long, blond hair out of her trademark ponytail, sat down to speak with espnW and three other international journalists. She still was still soaking in her accomplishment, also admittedly tired, definitely hungry and looking forward to decompressing as nightfall came to Paris.
Sharapova's French Open performance also restored her as the world's No. 1 player, a ranking she has not held since May 2009. I asked her if she felt she brought more personal gravitas to being No. 1 over recent top players Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka.
"It's tough for me to say and judge, because obviously, I'm not always the one to give myself compliments," Sharapova said. "I'm just extremely happy to be back on this stage. It means a lot to me personally. I've played this sport for long, and it means a lot to me personally."
Sharapova, 25, is old enough to understand the meaning of what she's accomplished and the kind of legacy she is leaving on tennis. But she's also young enough to continue the excellence, something she hopes will lead to even more championships and special moments.
"My goal is to represent it in the best way possible, be professional off the court, set a good example, not just for now, but a generation that's going to be coming after," Sharapova said. "Like Billie Jean King did, and obviously is something that's always on my mind, because what you put in place now, will ultimately, when you take a sidestep back or retire, you have a whole new generation that will kind of follow your footsteps."
Sharapova is also cognizant of how winning the French Open helps her international brand, a business she has built carefully since she won Wimbledon at age 17. Sharapova enjoys the highest degree of popularity on Facebook of any female tennis player with 7.3 million likes.
She shared her happiness over winning the French on Facebook, posting late Saturday evening:
"I just want to say....thank you!
Thank you for believing in me.
Thank you for making me better.
Thank you for sharing this moment with me."
But in the end, it always comes back to tennis for Sharapova. It's where she says her heart always is centered, with the other endorsement and commercial opportunities springing from what she does on the court.
Her 10-month recovery in 2009 from shoulder surgery taught her what her world could be without tennis, allowing Sharapova to go to movies, take French lessons and partake in other trappings of the elusive state of a normal life.
"Nothing is exciting as what I get to do or achieve on the court," Sharapova said. "I was able to do normal things, spend family holidays at home, but never felt like anything that gave me the joy of you're fighting to get a match point in the final of a Grand Slam."
And Sharapova paused, to add her famous, Mona Lisa-like smile. Making history is one thing, but being able to revel in it, and appreciate it, is something she is savoring.