A statuesque 6-foot-2, Maria Sharapova was simply not built to be a clay-court wonder. Initially, her movement -- perhaps the most important factor on clay -- was, let’s just say, not great. At the same time, her big, bold strokes were muffled by the dirt, giving speedier, more mobile opponents time to run them down. Because she grew accustomed to short points, her fitness level never matched the quality of her shot-making.
In 2003, Sharapova lost her first-career main-draw match at Roland Garros. A 16-year-old qualifier, she fell 6-3, 6-3 to Magui Serna. A little over a year later on the lawn at Wimbledon, Sharapova scored one of the biggest upsets on a major stage, defeating two-time defending champion Serena Williams in a straight-sets final.
Hard to believe, at that point, that clay would eventually become Sharapova’s most successful surface in Grand Slam events. This remarkable evolution is a story of uncommon patience and perseverance, which in retrospect might have been Sharapova’s finest qualities.
“You’re not just born being a natural clay-court player -- OK, maybe if you’re [Rafael] Nadal,” Sharapova said years later. “But certainly not me. I didn’t grow up on it, didn’t play on it. I just took it upon myself to make myself better on it.”
Still a teenager, she won the 2006 US Open and two years later at 20, the Australian Open. Despite her famously self-deprecating cow-on-ice remarks, Sharapova was a credible clay-court player. She reached the quarterfinals in Paris in 2004 and 2005, and in 2007 -- the year of her embattled bovine comments -- made it all the way to the semifinals.
But when her right shoulder disintegrated in late 2008, she was forced to miss the Olympics and would ultimately be out for nine months. It was a career-threatening injury, which required some serious surgery. Slowly, surely, Sharapova came back to compete at the highest level. While her serve was never the same, she compensated by becoming remarkably fit.
“When you’re able to maybe spend a bit more time in the gym than you would have when you’re playing tournaments or not just on the court,” she said, “it gives you a good chance to build your leg strength and overall strength, which was important for me.”
It all came together on clay in 2012. Her opening 6-0, 6-0 win over Alexandra Cadantu in 48 minutes was a veritable warning shot to the field at Roland Garros. After winning titles in Stuttgart and Rome, Sharapova announced herself as the player to beat.
“There’s no substitute for work and physical work and hours on the court, hours from the court,” Sharapova told reporters afterward. “Also, just experience. You learn. Over the years you learn what your body can take, what it can’t, what you need, how you recover better.”
“Little by little ... I’m not ever going to be lifting 50‑pound weights anytime soon or ever, but it’s little things, little muscles, little explosive steps that I feel like I’ve improved.”
Sharapova added that, perhaps for the first time, she felt properly prepared for seven of the grueling, grinding matches required over two weeks in Paris.
“I can play them all tough and I can recover well, which really [used to] hurt me a lot,” she said. “Before I would play three‑set matches where I’d have to dig deep in the beginning of the event ... but for the next match it was just like the balloon popped.”
Sharapova blew through the field, defeating Sara Errani in the final. She won 14 of 15 sets, regained the No.1 ranking from Victoria Azarenka to become only the 10th woman to collect all four Grand Slam trophies. Her wide smile at the post-match ceremony said it all.
“It’s a wonderful moment in my career,” the 25-year-old Sharapova told the crowd in French, before switching to English to add: “I’m really speechless. It’s been such a journey for me to get to this stage.”
She again made the final a year later at Roland Garros, losing to Serena Williams, and -- after another shoulder scare in 2013 that cost her the second half of the season -- advanced to her third straight final in 2014. Simona Halep played brilliantly, Sharapova’s surgically repaired shoulder was responsible for 12 double faults and the heat and humidity, by Paris standards, was oppressive. And still, Sharapova prevailed 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 in a little over three hours. It was the first women’s French Open final in 13 years to go three sets.
“If somebody had told me at some stage in my career, that I’d have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I’d probably go get drunk,” Sharapova said afterward. “Or tell them to get drunk. One or the other.”
Sharapova’s three-year run in Paris produced a 20-1 record. None of her first 18 titles came on clay, but this was her 10th of 14 on the surface she once dreaded. At the end of her career, Sharapova’s winning percentage at Roland Garros (56-12, .824) surpassed the Australian Open (57-15, .792), Wimbledon (46-14, .767) and the US Open (38-12, .760).
“It was very ugly in the beginning,” Sharapova said after that fifth major victory. “It was a big learning process for me, to physically improve, because I figured I’d have no chance if I ever wanted to achieve something on this.”