Sharapova sensational in win for the record books

PARIS -- The eyes told it all, moments before Sara Errani and Maria Sharapova started to warm up Saturday for their French Open final.

Sharapova, the heavy favorite, remained in her own private world, untouched by the ceremony and applause bestowed on the finalists as they laid down their first footsteps on the red clay. She quietly dropped the hand of the child who led her out as soon as she could, barely touched the giant bouquet of peonies and roses that was presented to her, and never smiled or averted her steely gaze.

This was not the moment to drink in the scene. There was a task at hand, and second-seeded Sharapova was not suffering even the tiniest of distractions.

Errani tried to look poker-faced too, but the dark irises of her pale blue eyes grew subtly larger with every step she took onto Court Philippe Chatrier. This was the first Grand Slam final for the No. 21 seed, and she seemed irresistibly compelled to peek at the scene that she had only previously dreamed about.

Sharapova's unwavering composure would take the final, overwhelming a seemingly nervous Errani 6-3, 6-2 to capture her first French Open. After winning the final point, Sharapova fell to her knees, mouthed "Oh my God!" twice, and then fully succumbed to her moment by looking around the stands and soaking in the applause.

"It's surreal," Sharapova said. "It's the most unique moment I've experienced in my career. I never thought I would have that. I thought that when I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most treasured moment of my career.

"But when I fell down on my knees today I realized that this was extremely special, and even more so. Yeah."

The stakes were huge for both, but Sharapova, who will become the world's No. 1 player on Monday, bore the additional weight of making history. She moved from being in elite company, one of eight women in the Open era who had won three of the four Slams, into rarefied air. Only nine other women in history have won each of the Slams -- including legends such as Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova.

AP Photo/Michel Euler

Sara Errani battled in her first Grand Slam final, but with tired legs she couldn't overcome a determined Maria Sharapova.

And now Sharapova adds her name to the list, putting the French Open title with her 2004 Wimbledon, 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open championships. Only the Olympic gold medal remains outstanding, and Sharapova will have a chance to collect that when she represents her native Russia at this summer's London Games.

Sharapova's entry into the exclusive club of the game's great champions is even more significant given this era of women's tennis. No one player is stockpiling Grand Slams due to the global expansion of the talent pool and serious injuries derailing top players. There now have been six straight different women's winners of the past six Grand Slams, and six consecutive different French Open champions.

Sharapova's track to becoming a four-time Slam winner seemed very much in doubt in 2009, when a serious shoulder surgery and a long recovery threatened her career. The past year has shown Sharapova regaining her top form, and answering her critics on if she is capable of again being the best in the game.

"I had so many outs in my career," Sharapova said. "I could have said, 'I don't need this. I have money; I have fame; I have victories; I have Grand Slams.' But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world, and you seem so small.

"But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."

Sharapova, who stands 6-foot-2, played a very efficient match against Errani, exploiting every weakness of her 5-foot-5 opponent. Errani couldn't escape Sharapova's punishment: if she served, Sharapova would rip a deep winner. If Errani received served, Sharapova would swing her wide to open up the court or even ace her.

Sharapova jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first set, and 4-1 in the second, forcing Errani to play from a point of desperation. Errani, who showed a fighting spirit during the entire French Open fortnight, tried everything she could to win points. But more often than not, Errani's shotmaking was met with superior pace and devastatingly angled winners from Sharapova.

"I started very bad, so with this player, if you give her like some games like this in the beginning, of course they are more relaxed," Errani said. "It was very difficult for me to play. She played very good, I think."

This was uncharted territory for Errani, who had never made it past the second round of Roland Garros until this year. She lost in the first round her first three years. Both players are 25, but Sharapova held the edge of having a wealth of six Grand Slam final experiences to draw upon. Some matches ended in triumph, like Saturday's, while others in lopsided defeat for Sharapova, like the 2007 Australian Open or 2011 at Wimbledon.

And soon it was over, according to the presumed script, after only 90 minutes and two sets. Sharapova claimed the final Grand Slam that she coveted the most for her collection.

As Sharapova twirled in victory on the court, Errani quietly returned to her chair, waiting for the trophy ceremony to start. She looked stunned, somewhat disbelieving, as she absorbed the full dimension of the defeat she just had suffered. Her eyes, nearly as wide as when she walked onto the court, started to turn red on the edges as she welled up with tears.

Unintentional comedy, thanks to an announcer's mistakes, gave Errani her first smile on this day to finally match Sharapova's. The runner-up was introduced, and the announcer said, "Maria Sharapova," leading to laughs from both players and the crowd. Errani put her arms up, and acted like she had won with a mini-celebration, and all enjoyed the moment of levity.

It would be the only moment of joy Errani could count her own, as the rest belonged to Sharapova on her historic day.

"It's a long journey, it started from a very young age," Sharapova said, referencing her moving from Russia to the U.S. to train as a child. "It's not over yet, you know. I'm not sitting here and saying I'm done, because I'm far from it. I have a lot more in me to achieve. I believe in my game.

"I think that's one of the reasons why I'm sitting here with my fourth one and winning Roland Garros, is because I always believed I could be better, I could be a better player, whether it was on clay, whether it was on grass, whether it was on cement, anything, I always strive to be better."

Sharapova's intense glare was no more, replaced by the smiling and happy gaze of a champion.

Her work was finally, and efficiently, done in Paris.

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