June 7, 2014
It will go down as one of the great women’s finals.
After more than three hours of delicious tension and intriguing psychological cat-and-mouse, of wonderful action packed with brutal baseline shots and mind-boggling defensive desperation, we finally had a winner. And what a champion Maria Sharapova is…the woman who wants to win just that little bit more than anyone else. Sharapova took the title 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4. It was so much harder than it sounds.
How lucky we are that Wimbledon is almost upon us and we can soon enjoy more dramatic battles as breathtaking as this in London.
The old guard – Sharapova, Serena Williams, Li Na – are on the verge of being overthrown by the new kids on the block – Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Eugenie Bouchard.
But it hasn’t happened just yet. A third successive Roland Garros final; but Sharapova was as hungry as ever. Her reward was to become the first Russian of either sex to win a Grand Slam tournament twice. Having achieved that dream, Maria climbed into the crowd to embrace her coaching team. Soon she was in tears of joy and relief.
‘I’m so emotional right now I can’t even talk,’ she explained. ‘This is a dream come true. This is the toughest Grand Slam final I’ve ever played, Simona played a wonderful match.’
Halep, who had brought her native Romania to a virtual standstill by reaching her first Grand Slam final, began as though she belonged in the big time. Yet she ended her brave afternoon in tears of disappointment, having given everything she had and still come out second best. She composed herself to say: ‘This is my first Grand Slam speech, I’m very emotional but I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. Maria, you are a great champion.’
Halep broke serve in the very first game as Sharapova started nervously. But Maria soon broke back with some clubbing forehands to level at 2-2. It took 35 minutes to play the first five games as every point became a monumental battle.
With Sharapova 3-2 ahead she was warned between games about the length of time she was taking between serves. She realised she had to break Halep to give herself a cushion and did just that with the help of an amazing lob. The 2012 champion followed up with her strongest service game yet, as Halep’s level dropped for the first time. But Maria uncharacteristically lost her intensity just when the first set was in her grasp. Simona broke back to move from 2-5 to a more threatening 4-5 and served to draw level.
Sharapova chose that moment to raise her game once more and found success with her second set point. It had taken 57 minutes of sporting warfare to reach that 6-4 scoreline, which was the first set Simona had dropped all fortnight. Maria opened the second with one of the strongest service games of her entire tournament. Halep looked ready to crack and having survived a fresh onslaught and the first two break points, she finally succumbed to Sharapova’s incessant power.
Yet again, Maria squandered the chance to take total control and allowed Simona to break back. And Halep drew level with some phenomenal defensive work, similar to the way she had lit up the early stages of the final. Three double faults left Sharapova vulnerable to losing her third successive game but she overcame her mini-crisis to stop the rot.
Back came Simona once more to level the scores and test Sharapova’s nerve. Maria stayed solid when it mattered and transferred the pressure back onto her 22-year-old opponent.
Chants of “Simona” rang around Roland Garros as she went 30-0 ahead on her own serve. But Sharapova hit back to force one break point then another. Halep saved both and held for 4-4 to keep her hopes alive.
Refusing to reflect on what might have been, Maria steeled herself once more to try to move within a game of the title. But the supreme natural defences of the Romanian took her to superhuman heights and a break point after Sharapova had enjoyed a 40-15 lead.
The crowd roared when Halep stayed strong to force that break. From being ready to serve to stay in the match, Simona was now serving for the set. But Sharapova wasn’t having any of it and stormed her way to two break points. On the second, the ball rolled just over the ribbon to break Romanian hearts, for the moment at least.
Halep could have crumbled at that cruel twist of fate. But she swiped her way back to three break points in the very next game. She took her third chance and suddenly Simona served for the second set yet again. Sharapova sensed her tension, broke to love and took an epic clash of wills into a nerve-jangling tie-break. Maria’s superior experience appeared to tell when it came to the crunch and she bludgeoned her way to 4-2. Still Halep wouldn’t give up and fought back to 5-5. Simona then held her serve to reach set point and drew level when Sharapova fired wide.
The Russian disappeared for at least five minutes to change and compose herself for the final part of the trilogy. The pause seemed to do her good, as Sharapova broke immediately when it mattered. Perhaps we should have expected Halep to do exactly the same – and she didn’t disappoint. Crucially Simona then held her own serve and looked favourite to win the match for the first time.
Sharapova’s weakness out wide had been tested time and again but she chose this moment to expose Halep in the same areas. Still the plucky Romanian found a way to stay in the game, until Sharapova’s frustration nearly got the better of her. Yet she dug deep to equalise at 2-2 and celebrated almost as though she had won the match right there.
Somehow Maria maintained that intensity for the next game and raced to three break points with an impossible piece of defensive acrobatics. Halep wiped out two but Sharapova clinched a precious break with the third and stood just three games from victory.
Maria picked that moment to come up with one of her very best service games, which she won to love, romping to 4-2 in the third. Even then Halep remained unbowed, holding to earn herself a lifeline. And Maria’s nerve became frayed, as she double-faulted to let Simona back in at 4-4.
From somewhere way down deep, Sharapova summoned some more fight and broke in spectacular style to love. At last, after three hours, she was serving for the match.
A drive-volley took Maria to 30-0, and Halep returned wildly to expose herself to three match points. One last assault and Sharapova was there!
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