Overcoming her nerves and some terrible serves, Maria Sharapova won her second French Open on Saturday, prevailing in a hard-fought match to become the first Russian tennis player to win the same Grand Slam tournament more than once.
She was two points away from claiming the title in straight sets but wobbled and lost a tiebreaker to Romania's Simona Halep, a 22-year-old Harry Potter fanatic whose rise this year has been dramatic and whose ranking was four places above her opponent's going into the final.
In the end, however, Sharapova wielded the more powerful wand on the distinctive red clay of Roland Garros. Despite a number of errors, her fearsome forehand worked its magic on key points, hitting deep and painting lines.
After three hours of baseline duels and swings in momentum, the 27-year-old Russian sank to her knees in the dust when a shot from Halep dropped wide and handed Sharapova a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 triumph.
"This is the toughest Grand Slam final I've ever played in," said Sharapova, who now has five major titles to her name, including one from each of the big four tournaments.
She lifted the French Open trophy for the first time in 2012 and, somewhat to her surprise because of her lack of affection for clay, has reached the deciding round here in Paris three years in a row.
"If somebody had told me that … at some stage in my career I'd have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I'd probably go get drunk," she said. "It's the most emotional victory for me."
Halep, too, shed tears after her loss but consoled herself with having made history of her own under gorgeous blue skies in perfect tennis weather. She is the first Romanian woman to play in a Grand Slam final in 34 years; the previous one was Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open champion who is now Halep's coach. (Ruzici lost in the 1980 final.)
"It was my first Grand Slam final, and I have to be happy and to smile," Halep said. "I didn't expect three sets, three hours, but it happened, and I'm really happy that I could stay a very long time on court. The atmosphere was incredible."
She muscled into the top 10 for the first time in January, then broke through to the top five in March on the strength of a game built on a strong serve and aggressive ground strokes that take the ball early and cheat her opponents of the time to make a convincing reply. Halep has also spoken openly of the breast-reduction surgery she underwent at age 18, which she credits with improving her movement on court.
Both she and Sharapova scrambled gamely throughout their match, chasing down shots that whizzed into corners or arrowed toward the sidelines. The face-off was a rerun of the final in a tune-up clay tournament in Madrid in May, which Sharapova also won in three sets.
It was Halep who grabbed the early lead Saturday and held it for the first 25 minutes, breaking Sharapova in the opening game as the Russian struggled to get the measure of her shots. But once Sharapova settled into her rhythm and evened the score at 2-2, Halep found herself playing from behind for the next two hours.
Though both women produced some sterling shots that had the capacity crowd gasping, holding serve was at a premium. The match seesawed between 16 service breaks, including six in a row at the end of the second set and start of the third (discounting the tiebreaker).
Sharapova was hobbled by 12 double faults, three in one game alone. The crowds whistled and booed at her numerous aborted service ball tosses, and the umpire issued her a warning for taking too long between points.
The umpire also rattled Halep by awarding a point to Sharapova in the crucial ninth game of the third set, at 4-4, on a shot by the Russian that the baseline judge called long but that the umpire ruled good. Halep, who had retaken the lead on the scoreboard in the middle of the third set, went on to lose serve, giving Sharapova the chance to serve for the title.
"After that, I couldn't manage my nerves maybe, and I couldn't stay very focused for the next points," Halep said. "That's it, and that's life."
She will rise to No. 3 when the new rankings come out next week. Sharapova will move up three spots to No. 5.
Her $2.25-million champion's paycheck means that Sharapova, who has earned countless more millions in endorsements, has won more prize money than any female tennis player in history except Serena Williams, who has 17 major titles.
But even Sharapova cannot afford some things.
"It's cute, but I don't get to keep it," she said, hugging the gleaming Coupe Suzanne Lenglen during her post-match news conference. "It's probably too expensive. I might have to steal it."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times