In 2011, Sharapova ended a Roland Garros semifinal by tapping a second serve into the net. In 2012, Sharapova ended a Roland Garros semifinal by pounding a second serve off the corner of the box for an ace, propelling her to the #1 ranking for the first time in four years. Doubtless still elated by that miraculous achievement, the three-time major champion hopes to emulate Djokovic at Wimbledon last year by consolidating her ascent to the summit with a title at the major least suited to her game.
Throughout this fortnight and throughout the entire clay season, in fact, the crushed brick of Europe hardly has looked like the surface least suited to the woman who famously called herself a “cow on ice” here. With three titles in her last four tournaments on red clay, Sharapova has defeated every reigning major champion there this year and has lost just one set in six matches at Roland Garros. Her seismic blows from the baseline have blasted through the sport’s slowest surface and some of the most frustrating conditions for a sniper like Sharapova who relies on pinpoint accuracy. But her dominance in Paris has sprung in large part from her dominance behind her first serve (her fourth-round match aside) and especially her unparalleled return, which has allowed her to win a spectacular 72% of return games in the tournament. Even the imposing delivery of Kvitova survived the tournament’s single most fearsome shot so far in only five of nine service games. When Sharapova dictates so relentlessly with both point-starting shots, opponents struggle to recover in rallies that she controls from the outset. In the dry, relatively sunny conditions of Saturday, her weapons should fire more forcefully than they have since the first week.
Having faced just one top-20 challenger in the tournament, Sharapova raised her level impressively to dispatch Kvitova with barely a flicker of doubt. After pulsating with the thrill of recapturing the top ranking and reaching her first final here, though, she cannot afford to let her focus fade in the wake of those cathartic triumphs. From the similarly offensively oriented styles of Kanepi and Kvitova, she must adjust to an opponent closer to the conventional clay mold. For that reason, Sharapova must temper her audacious shot selection with a modicum of patience in constructing points, methodically maneuvering her opponent out of position before pulling the trigger. Tasked with the pressure of history and of her status as the favorite, she cannot expect a straightforward encounter in her first meeting with a woman who has played well above her ranking in her last four matches.
Destined to reach the top 10 on Monday, Errani thoroughly has deserved that accomplishment with her victories over two top-10 opponents—the first two of her career—and two former Roland Garros champions. Recalling Schiavone’s shocking surge through the 2010 draw, she lost the first set of her first match and ate breadsticks from two more renowned opponents without surrendering the service break or the untimely unforced error that usually spells an underdog’s ruin. This second Italian finalist in three years shares her compatriot’s tenacity if not her imaginative genius, not once buckling under the pressure of the moment in upset after upset. Extended to 5-5 in four sets by her four most recent victims, Errani prevailed every time by forcing her determination to overcome her nerves in a riveting display of how far self-belief and a touch of defiance can carry an individual. A three-time titlist on clay this year but never past the first week of a major until this year, she may find the setting of a championship match intimidating—or, as Schiavone did, she may find it inspiring. Two years ago, the 2010 champion realized that she needed to play the match of her life to win and embraced the challenge. Having won the doubles title just a day before she faces Sharapova, Errani could ride the tide of her momentum to the same breakthrough.
But she faces by far the most formidable test of her fortnight at its climax. Although she has defeated a series of accomplished players already, Errani has not confronted anyone who combines such ruthless power, elite experience, and competitive resilience. That triple-bladed dagger separates Sharapova from the fellow major champions slain by the Italian to this stage. To shield herself from the new world #1, the 21st seed must spurn the temptation of standing toe to toe with her in a contest of groundstroke might. If Sharapova turns the final into a firefight of rhythmic salvoes, the match can arrive at only one conclusion, but Errani has honed plenty of tools to complicate the narrative. By keeping the ball low and deep, she can prevent the Russian from stepping inside the baseline and mitigate her nine-inch disadvantage in height, perhaps even profiting from it. Even more importantly, she must adapt quickly to absorb the force of Sharapova’s strokes, which she never has experienced before. Once Errani grows accustomed to the Russian’s rhythm, she can craft a strategy for disrupting it by modulating her placement and pace. Continuing a trend from her semifinal, when she served 86%, the first-time major finalist must find a balance between protecting her second serve from Sharapova’s savage return and removing so much pace from her first serve that her opponent recognizes the pattern and starts pulverizing that delivery too. If Errani knows exactly what to expect from her opponent, she must attempt to ensure that her opponent does not know exactly what to expect from Errani. Otherwise, the triple-bladed dagger that we described before likely will pierce her defenses.
But Sharapova has not unveiled her fiercest form in the two major finals that she has reached since her comeback. Winning ten total games from first-time major finalists Kvitova and Azarenka, she scarcely resembled the fearless superstar who won a different major every two years from 2004 to 2008. Triumphant in each of her clay title tilts to date, on the other hand, she reversed a three-final losing streak when the season began with consecutive victories over two leading rivals in Stuttgart and Rome. Yet another first-time finalist now stands between Sharapova and an accomplishment that she (like many others) never would have thought possible for a woman who fires first and asks questions later. In her third major final of the last twelve months, two days after she defied another set of expectations with her return to #1, the glamorous gladiator hopes to prove the third time the charm.