Signature Achievement of the Year (WTA): Maria Sharapova
Validating her comeback from shoulder surgery, Sharapova became just the tenth woman to complete a career Grand Slam when the self-proclaimed “cow on ice” conquered Roland Garros this year.
As of 2009, never had a player won a major title after significant shoulder surgery. While she surely tried to banish that thought from her mind, Sharapova knew that a long, arduous path loomed ahead in a comeback. Through most of the first two years after she returned, her results justified the pessimism of her critics rather than rewarding her patience. Her fortunes did lift midway through 2011 with a semifinal at Roland Garros and a final at Wimbledon, although her performance in those matches as well as the Australian Open final this year could have spawned disillusionment as easily as encouragement. One might have wondered whether these routine losses would discourage Sharapova, but the Russian continued to display a tenacity rare in the WTA by reaching more marquee finals even while the decisive statement still eluded her grasp.
Alongside that challenge stood the task of conquering clay and the only major title outside her collection, a source of inspiration before she had undergone surgery. Although Sharapova had compiled a handful of signature victories at Roland Garros, she also had suffered a cluster of defeats plagued uncharacteristically by nerves. For example, a winnable semifinal against Li in 2011 had ended in a double fault after games strewn with untimely errors. To mount a credible charge in Paris, then, Sharapova needed to build her confidence throughout the clay season that preceded it. She accomplished that goal not only through commanding victories over recent nemesis Azarenka and long-standing nemesis Venus in Stuttgart and Rome, respectively, but more importantly by surviving one excruciatingly tense match at each tournament. Saving a match point against Stosur in Stuttgart before winning an epic battle of will, she repeated the feat against Li in a rain-soaked Rome final that avenged her last loss at Roland Garros and established her supremacy over the defending champion there. On both occasions, Sharapova trailed by a set and a break before finding her best tennis late in the match. Those two tests of tenacity surely contributed to her ability to insulate herself from the pressure that mounted with each round in Paris
Undefeated on red clay as she marched towards the second major of 2012, Sharapova shouldered additional pressure almost immediately when Razzano stunned Serena in the first round, one of the season’s most astonishing upsets. With the title favorite gone, and most of the high seeds in her half of the draw struggling, the three-time major champion became a popular choice to reach her seventh major final. An accommodating early draw heightened those expectations, despite Sharapova’s chronic wobbles in Roland Garros matches against opponents on the level of Mashona Washington and Evgeniya Rodina. Nevertheless, she conceded just five games in the first week before running into the sort of dogged counterpuncher in Klara Zakopalova who might have unhinged her in earlier years. Their encounter on a damp, heavy afternoon looked even less picturesque than the weather as each woman squandered opportunities with reckless profligacy. Undeterred by her alarmingly ragged play or the potential embarrassment that hovered, Sharapova kept her poise in a third set that probably never should have happened. She never would come close to defeat for the rest of the fortnight.
Instead of growing edgier with each round, as one would expect from someone on the brink of an immense achievement, Sharapova swung with her customary abandon through her last three victories. Her only truly fearsome opposition arrived in the semifinals, when she played not only for her first career appearance in a Roland Garros final but for the world #1 ranking, which she had not held since 2008. When they had met in Melbourne, Kvitova had stood toe to toe with her—if not outplayed her—for the majority of the match, so another suspenseful encounter looked likely. Clearly superior on this occasion, however, Sharapova served cleanly despite the windy conditions and punctuated her victory with a confident hold. Virtually all prognosticators fancied her chances in the final against Sara Errani, who never had advanced past the quarterfinals at a major before but had strung together victories over two former Roland Garros champions and former Roland Garros finalist Stosur. With nothing to lose, Errani competed far more convincingly than the scoreline showed after the first four games, finding ways to extend rallies and interjecting the delicate touch of the clay specialist. Undismayed by the resilience and cleverness across the net, Sharapova delivered perhaps her most complete performance in a match of this magnitude since the 2008 Australian Open. Ruthless but not reckless, passionate but poised, she mixed her familiar shot-making skills with patient point construction to which Errani ultimately found no answer. With exactly one title at each major, Sharapova had earned a career Grand Slam in the most efficient manner possible, silencing the doubters inside and outside her mind.
The finest achievement of her best season to date, this breakthrough at Roland Garros depleted Sharapova’s motivation only briefly before spurring her to new heights. In some players, the achievement might have marked a concluding statement or the capstone to a fine career. (One might identify Federer’s title there three years before as this type of event, viewed in the perspective of his overall trajectory.) For a champion not yet in the twilight phase, a career Grand Slam probably marks less a capstone than the most precious jewel in her crown.
Number to note:
6: Number of women who have completed a career Grand Slam since the Open era began: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf (who completed the WTA’s only calendar Grand Slam), Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova. Absent from the list, among others, are champions like Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, and Justine Henin. Of those elite six, only Sharapova completed her boxed set by winning each major precisely once before winning any of them twice.
Overachiever of the Year (ATP)