Remember when Maria Sharapova described herself as a “cow on ice” when it comes to playing on clay? The often candid Russian superstar was sort of half joking when she made that comment at Roland Garros back in 2007. At that time, Sharapova with her huge serve and long strides on the baseline seemed destined to only do well on the hard courts that she grew up on in Florida and the lawns of Wimbledon where she won her first Major at the age of 17.
But though she actually made the semis of the biggest clay court tournament the same year she equated herself as a bovine, Sharapova’s ascent to winning the coveted French Open title was a slow, if often bumpy climb to the trophy podium.
Ana Ivanovic and her abrupt 6-2, 6-1 dismissal of Sharapova in the Roland Garros semis back in 2007 seemed to suggest that the Russian’s will to win might carry her so far on what was then her worst surface, but not far enough. After taking time off late in 2008 to recover from shoulder surgery, Sharapova fell out of the top 100. But her run to the quarters in Paris in 2009 was the first real glimmer of hope that she would return to her familiar perch on top of the sport.
It was in Rome two years later that Sharapova’s growing confidence on the dirt began to really emerge though. She surprised many by reaching the finals and then winning the title over Sam Stosur in 2011. By now, Sharapova was working with Thomas Hogstedt full time and it was he who appeared to have finally given Sharapova the necessary patience she lacked on clay while improving her overall movement, especially sliding into the ball on instinct rather than just because she thought she had to.
Sharapova made another run to the semis of Paris a few weeks later only to lose to eventual champion Li Na who was once coached by Hogstedt. Some wondered if that loss to Li was Sharapova’s best and last chance to win the lone Major missing from her resume.
2012 would see Sharapova have her best ever clay court season. She claimed the Stuttgart title over then No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, reached the quarterfinals of Madrid contested on its controversial blue clay and then repeated as winner in Rome over Li Na in a soggy three set battle. But to win Roland Garros, Sharapova would have to find a way to continue her fine form over the two weeks in Paris against the very best.
When Serena Williams lost in a shocking first round exit to Virginie Razzano in Paris, that opened the door even wider for Sharapova. But she still had to go seven rounds herself to the finals. Sharapova displayed ominous form in her early matches by barely dropping games. Though she struggled for three sets against Klara Zakopalova, Sharapova found her “A” game again by allowing Petra Kvitova only six games in their semifinal.
The women’s finals became a coronation in many ways for Sharapova who took on the surprising Sara Errani of Italy. Sharapova’s transformation into a true clay court player was complete as she earned a 6-3, 6-2 win that not only finally gave her the coveted last piece of her career Grand Slam but also sent her back to No. 1 in the world.
Since the days of uncertainty when she came back from shoulder surgery, Sharapova has now amassed an impressive 42-6 clay court record. Rather than being listed as a dark horse, she’s now a contender for every clay court title she aims for. If Sharapova can repeat as Roland Garros champion is uncertain, especially with Serena Williams looking herself to make up for last year’s early exit. But Maria Sharapova has proven that with time, hard work and patience, the once self-professed “cow on ice” is sliding gracefully into creating one of the finest clay court legacies of her generation.