Maria Sharapova back at the top of her game
PARIS -- Three years ago, it seemed unlikely that Maria Sharapova could ever reclaim her status as the No. 1 player in the world.
She had last been No. 1 in May 2008, but that was before a chronic shoulder problem could no longer be ignored. Sharapova was humbled, unable to serve or play without pain, and underwent reconstructive shoulder surgery in October of that year.
And when she returned in 2009 with her ranking 128 places lower, she wondered whether she could regain her game.
But it was in the hope of days like Thursday that Sharapova had the surgery, went through the rehabilitation and suffered the bumpy road to return to the top of the game she loves. She defeated Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-3 in the French Open semifinals to reach her first Roland Garros final. And she will return to being the top-ranked player in the world after the French Open by virtue of reaching the Grand Slam's last match.
Sara Errani, the No. 21 seed, will face No. 2 Sharapova in the women's final Saturday at Roland Garros. The winner will be a first-time French Open champion.
But Sharapova, 25, has three Grand Slam titles in her career: 2004 Wimbledon, the 2006 U.S. Open and the 2008 Australian Open. The French Open is the only trophy missing from Sharapova's deep résumé, and she has not been shy about how badly she would love to win it. Only 10 women in history have completed the career Slam, and this would be her first Slam title since her shoulder surgery.
"What an amazing feeling," Sharapova told the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd in English. "This is my third semifinal, and I always dreamed of being in the final stage. Now I have that opportunity. I'm more than excited."
Sharapova clearly knew all the facets of the ground she had broken with her win, and was emotional in her post-victory remarks. She won the match with an amped-up, second-serve ace down the middle and raised her arms to the sky. She smiled and threw in a little skip as she bounded to the net to shake hands with Kvitova. Sharapova continued to beam, putting her hands to her forehand as if she couldn't believe it.
She blew kisses to the crowd, and walked slowly off the court, as if to relish every moment of her decisive victory.
"A few years ago, after shoulder surgery, and I had a ranking of over 100, I thought, 'I did it one time, I'm going to try to do it again,'" said Sharapova, talking about her return to No. 1. "It's pretty amazing that on Monday I will be No. 1 again. Wow."
It was a challenging environment for both players, with a wind that at times gusted from right to left up to 28 mph. The stiff breeze made Sharapova's high serve toss an adventure, and sometimes forced Kvitova to make poor decisions to get to short balls.
Sharapova has been the class of the French Open women's field, cruising through every match -- save for one -- in straight sets. Sharapova is playing clean, smart and efficient tennis, back to her pre-shoulder surgery form. Even her serve was working, despite the wind and her well-chronicled issues with form and toss. Sharapova won 75 percent of her first serves, thanks to making them 78 percent of the time.
Throw in Sharapova's aggressive return game, which has been haunting opponents throughout this Roland Garros run, and she has been unbeatable. She won 50 percent of her returns, as compared to the more erratic Kvitova at 34 percent.
Kvitova couldn't impose her left-handed spin and power game on Sharapova, and she was quick to admit she was clearly beaten.
"She played very well," Kvitova said. "She improved a lot, not only on the clay. I mean, I wasn't playing bad, but she was better on the court. She deserves it, and she's No. 1 now."
Kvitova, 22, may be able to take some lessons from Sharapova, who needed three tries over her career to reach the French Open final. Kvitova has been close in recent Grand Slams, reaching the semifinals in three of the past four. But she is 1-3 in Slam semifinals, with her only breakthrough coming in 2011 when she won the Wimbledon title.
"It's good to know that [I can] win [a] Grand Slam, I can be in the semifinal, but next I have to be in a different half [of the draw] than Maria," said Kvitova, showing a self-deprecating sense of humor after the loss. "Yeah, it's good result [French Open semifinals], for sure. I mean, being in the top four and being in the semifinal, it's good for me."
Sharapova is hoping to seize the chance to win the French Open, a task made a bit easier with the early departures of No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and the usually formidable Serena Williams. Sharapova's fall after shoulder surgery has given her a different perspective. She has more than surgical scars, as the operation and recovery changed her emotionally and mentally.
"I'm just much more grateful today for what I'm doing and what I have, more than anything," she said earlier in the tournament. "You know, when you start playing the sport from a young age and everything just kind of happens for you, you're on not a roll, but a routine [where] you take it for granted that things can happen, that can get you away from the sport.
"Now when I'm playing, I really feel like I'm much more positive. And maybe in certain situations when I'm angry at myself, I'm not. But overall, I see my career much more positive than I looked at it back then, especially during the tough days and losses."
There is one more tough day to go before Sharapova can truly revel in a complete comeback. The No. 1 ranking is hers, and now there's a Grand Slam title to claim.