When the tall, willowy figure of the 17-year-old Maria Sharapova burst onto tennis’s most famous stage at Wimbledon in 2004 to win her first Grand Slam, it seemed that this sport would fall at her feet.
Things, though, did not unfold in quite the way many expected. It would be more than two years before her next Grand Slam trophy—the US Open. Eighteen months more, and she won her third, the Australian Open. But between each milestone, she contended with injury, most persistently to her shoulder.
She finally succumbed to surgery that took her off the tour at the end of 2008, and not surprisingly, her form and her rankings suffered.
Not until 2011, with a new coach and training team behind her, did she break back into the top 10, and at Wimbledon she reached her first Major final in more than three years.
She went on to briefly reach No2 before an ankle injury at the end of the season side-lined her again—but she had proved she was back, and with a bigger serve, bigger forehand and better movement. It all boded well for her big 2012 target, the one that would complete her Grand Slam ‘set’: the French Open.
She reached three big hard court finals before winning her first title of the year: on the clay of Stuttgart. She won her second on the clay of Rome. And she went on to win the cherry on the clay cake, Roland Garros—thereby reclaiming the No1 ranking for the first time in nearly four years.
Sharapova is now No2 behind the woman who has dogged her career, who has made even more comebacks from injury and illness than she has, Serena Williams. And both are now making ready for their personal assaults on the French title.
For Williams, who won Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the US Open after last year’s clay season, the desire to win at Roland Garros may be greater than ever. It is more than 10 years since she won her only French title, while she has won at least four at each of the other three Majors. She was also shocked last year by her first ever loss in the first round of a Grand Slam.
There is no doubt, then, that this year in Paris—a place she likes so much that she has an apartment there—she is hungry for victory. And, just as last year, she turned to clay almost as soon as the big North American Premiers were done, defending her title at the first clay Premier in Charleston. She then slotted in two Fed Cup matches on her home hard courts.
Williams is not alone: All but two of the top 10 have invested time on clay, with only Victoria Azarenka missing after injury halted her in Indian Wells, and Agnieszka Radwanska, who has only played Fed Cup.
The hugely popular Stuttgart Premier played host to the other seven top women. For world No5 Na Li, it was her first tournament since Miami, as it was for last year’s losing French Open finalist, Sara Errani—though the Italian did play two Fed Cup rubbers.
Petra Kvitova, ranked No8, reached the final of the new clay event in Katowice, played two Fed Cup rubbers on clay, but was halted by Li in the Stuttgart quarters.
Angelique Kerber, No6, reached the final of Monterrey, played indoors in the Fed Cup and reached the semis in Stuttgart. In contrast, No 9 Sam Stosur and No10 Caroline Wozniacki won just a single match in Charleston and Stuttgart together.
But all eyes have been, as they often are, on the top seed Sharapova, in Stuttgart to defend her title.
Her draw looked tricky and she has had to dig deep to reach the final of perhaps the highest quality 28-woman draw of the year. Sharapova’s trouble started in her opening three-hour nine-minute tussle against Lucie Safarova, but she survived, coming back from 5-2 down in the second set to win 6-4 6-7(3) 6-3.
As luck would have it, she then drew former French Open champion, Ana Ivanovic in a face-off between two beauties of the tour and former No1s, and it proved to be another battle royal. Ivanovic closed a 1-4 deficit in the final set to 4-4, but again, after two hours and 16 minutes, it was Sharapova who came out on top, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.
Then came Kerber and yet another three-setter which the Russian took 7-5 in the third. And finally came a highly significant contest against Li: the two women contested the final in Rome last year and shared the last two French Open title.
Sharapova and Li, two superstars of tennis, compete in another sphere, too. According to Forbes, they are among the top-10 richest tennis players in the world as well as being top-10 ranked women. Sharapova, worth an estimated $90 million, is beaten only by the Roger Federer, a player with more than four times the number of Grand Slam titles and five more years on the clock.
Li stands at No8, her worth sky-rocketing in her homeland of China. The only other women in between are both named Williams. Close behind Sharapova comes Serena, worth $85 million overall and the winner of more prize money than any other female athlete.
The endorsements for Sharapova continued to pour in at Stuttgart’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, not least in her signing of a three-year deal to become the headline sponsor’s first ever brand ambassador.
However, she would undoubtedly exchange the Porsche she won with the impressive defence of her title—a powerful straight-sets victory—for the successful defence of French Open title.
Appropriate, perhaps, that the rivalry with Williams which began in the year of Sharapova’s first Grand Slam in 2004 remains just as vital now, 14 matches later. And a worry for Sharapova that, no matter that she tops Williams in financial worth, she has not beaten her rival since that same year.