Well, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, not much has happened in tennis since I wrote about Maria Sharapova’s retirement a few months ago. In a normal world, we would be knee deep in the French Open right now.
Whether you are a Sharapova fan like me or not, when you think about the clay in Paris, it doesn’t take long for her to come to mind. She was champion there in 2012 to complete her career Grand Slam and followed that up with the big trophy again in 2014.
She was also runner up in 2013 and a semifinalist in 2007 and 2011. Roland Garros was very good to the iconic Russian. Maybe I am a little weird, but I don’t think about those runs first when thinking about Sharapova in Paris.
I think about 2009. Sharapova had been out for 10 months after shoulder surgery. Shoulder injuries eventually hastened her retirement. 11 years ago, the year’s second major was just Sharapova’s second singles event back.
She was ranked 102 in the world, her serving shoulder was covered in therapeutic tape, and she hadn’t figured out how to blend her power based game with a surface that usually diffuses power to produce consistent results on clay just yet.
No one, perhaps not even Sharapova herself expected much from her at this event. She was still in the “gotta start somewhere” part of her comeback.
I will let photos and quotes tell most of the next part of the story, but remember, no one ever doubted Sharapova’s desire to win, but you didn’t always see how much it meant to her early in a big event. But…
Here she is locking down a 3-6 6-2 6-1 win over Anastasia Yakimova in the first round
Next, Sharapova upset 12 seed Nadia Petrova 6-2 1-6 8-6. I sneakily watched this one on mute in the back of my high school Spanish class. I was so excited, but had to keep quiet. This shot was captured as Petrova’s ball sailed wide on match point.
To get to the second week, Sharapova slipped past a future top 25 player in Yaroslava Shvedova 1-6 6-3-6-4. The then three-time Grand Slam winner let out a shrill of delight to her coaching box after match point. TV commentator Chris Fowler remarked “A little rusty? Sure. Not at her best on clay? Definitely. But she can fight.” The fight is the trademark of Sharapova’s career and what she will always be remembered for, even by her many detractors.
The return run had one final happy chapter in it for Sharapova. She squeaked by frequent sparring partner Li Na 6-4 0-6 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals. The Chinese woman hadn’t quite become the player that would win two Grand Slams of her own yet. The picture as Sharapova was walking to the net for a handshake says it all.
The future two-time French Open champion ran out of gas against Dominika Cibulkova in the last 8. Cibulkova was an elite counterpuncher. The worst kind of player to deal with if you are fatigued. Sharapova was understandably exhausted and got handed one of the most lopsided defeats of her career.
Sharapova’s ride back to the top from her first shoulder surgery was tougher than most thought it would be given her ability to post a major quarterfinal result so quickly after returning. It took her two years after this run to get past the quarters of a major again. As we all know, she eventually got there and then some.
Given what Sharapova ended up achieving in Paris just a few years later, 2009 gets lost in the shuffle, It shouldn’t. She got to the quarterfinals of a major on what was then her worst surface. She did it in just her second tournament back after a ten-month injury layoff.
Moreover, she won four matches in a row. All of which went three sets and lasted over two hours. Lastly, she did all this while one arm almost surely was still not 100% healthy, as evidenced by the tape job.
No, she didn’t win it, but the 2009 French Open will always be one of my favorite events of Sharapova’s career. There aren’t many better examples that sum up what defined it. A once ever blend of grit, glamour, grace, and fight. Often, her intense distaste for losing was enough to win.