French Open Flashback: Sharapova’s admirable 2009 run

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

sha yaki

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.

sha pet 3

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.

sharapova li

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.

 

Why I’ll miss Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova retired from pro tennis at the age of 32 on Wednesday. If you know me at all, you know I am a huge Sharapova fan. However, even though I started watching tennis when Sharapova was a teenager for the same reason every other male did, it goes way deeper than that.

She is perhaps the most unique athlete ever. From the moment she defeated Serena Williams out of nowhere in 2004 to win Wimbledon at age 17, she was a made woman. With her supermodel good looks, the endorsements flooded in. She never had to pick up a racquet again, but she did.

At one point, she was the highest earning female athlete in the world for 11 straight years, but she was always a tennis player first. She added to her trophy case with the U.S. Open in 2006 and Austrailian Open in 2008, along with a slew of other titles.

There was certainly no need for her to come back to the sport after a shoulder injury and surgery kept her out from August 2008-May 2009, but she did. She added two more major titles at the French Open in 2012 and 2014, completing her career Grand Slam. This is something only 18 people in history have. You get the idea. There are many quotes about Sharapova’s commitment and dedication to the sport, but I’ll keep it simple. Sharapova herself once said “I’m an athlete I go out there and fight my heart out.” Even though another long-term shoulder injury added to a forearm complication was too much to overcome, my God did she ever do that.

She was not as naturally athletically gifted as many of her peers. Frankly, at well over six feet tall, she was always an awkward mover around the court, but for most of her career, it hardly mattered. Often, just wanting it more was enough. She won 36 career singles titles, three doubles titles, five majors, spent 21 weeks at world number one, won Olympic silver for Russia, was part of a championship Fed Cup team, and had 98 wins against top ten players.

Sharapova’s legacy is not without complication. She served a 15-month doping ban from early 2016 to the spring of 2017. Haters are always gonna hate, but she was exonerated from intentional wrongdoing. Also, her final career title and five of those 98 top ten wins came after the ban.

Most people are not tennis fans and will remember Sharapova for glam shots like this.

sha glam

I am sure there are a lot more of those coming in retirement. However, I will remember Sharapova for shots like the one below. Shots that show the girl who came to the U.S. from Russia with almost nothing and fought like hell to win tennis matches, even after she had everything.

2014 French Open - Day Ten

As someone who was born with a major physical disability, I often spend my life listening to people tell me what I can’t do, and that’s hard. I have learned a lot from Sharapova in that regard. Just keep fighting, no matter how bad things look, and you will be rewarded.

Sharapova was clearly playing in pain for the last two years. It was time. I am glad she is no longer putting herself through the ringer. But I will miss planning my weeks and sleep schedule around seeing her matches. I will miss her shouting “come on” after ripping a point winning backhand. I don’t rip point winning backhands, but I have adopted the “come on” in my own life. I will miss her playing lefty forehands to stay in points when she was in trouble.

I will miss the three set battles she seemed to always grind through. I will miss her going from competing to the point of almost foaming at the mouth to a million-dollar smile in a nanosecond after winning match point. I will miss her constantly clenched fist on the court. I will miss her post match press conferences where her wicked sense of humor was on public display. Win or lose, she never dodged a question. She often covered everything from tennis, to fashion, to candy.

I will miss hoping scheduling worked out for her to play in my hometown of Cincinnati every year and am thankful it did on a few occasions. I will miss learning about the many coaches and trainers who kept her so engaged for so long. Thank you to Michael Joyce, Thomas Hogstedt, Sven Groeneveld, and many others. Thank you to her agent Max Eisenbud, a true constant of the Sharapova empire.

I will miss going to YouTube before matches to find out all I can about Sharapova opponents with whom I wasn’t overly familiar. Yes, I will even miss the trademark Sharapova shriek.

My passion for tennis isn’t going anywhere. I will still follow the men’s and women’s tours week in and week out. I view the four majors like a lot of the rest of the world views Christmas. However, I will never watch another tennis match and have a hardcore rooting interest.

As much as fans like me will miss Sharapova, the sport will miss her more. The current generation of players like Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka is immensely talented, but they all have weeks where they show up at tournaments uninterested. They speak openly about being distracted by the off-court obligations that come with being a top player.

Sharapova was thrown on the world’s stage at 17 and handled everything just fine while still managing to put the sport first… Always.

Whatever life after tennis holds for Sharapova, she will be successful. She knows no other way. I hope she still pops into the tennis world on occasion. However, the preceding two paragraphs and everything else here is why, as hard as the media will try to create one, there will NEVER be another Maria Sharapova.