PARIS - Sidelined in 2008 by a right shoulder that needed surgery, putting her tennis future suddenly in doubt, Maria Sharapova decided to use the free time to study a new language, the one spoken at the only Grand Slam tournament she had yet to win.
“I found a French school close to my house,’’ she recalled, “and I did private lessons every single day for three months.’’
Sharapova cut short those classes when it was time to begin the slow, painful rehab process and get her shoulder back in shape. About 3 1/2 years later, Sharapova put all of that hard work to good use on the most important clay court there is, Roland Garros - and even trotted out a little French during the victory speech she often wondered whether she would ever deliver.
Whipping big serves with that rebuilt shoulder, putting forehands and backhands right on lines, and even moving well on the red surface she once worried made her look like a “cow on ice,’’ Sharapova beat surprise finalist Sara Errani of Italy, 6-3, 6-2, Saturday to win her first French Open title and become the 10th woman with a career Grand Slam.
“It’s a wonderful moment in my career,’’ Sharapova, 25, 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.’’
So much came so easily for Sharapova at the start: Wimbledon champ at age 17; No. 1 in the rankings at 18; US Open champ at 19; Australian Open champ at 20.
But a shoulder operation in October 2008 made everything tougher. She didn’t play singles from August 2008 until the following May, when her ranking fell to 126th.
“It wasn’t getting better as soon as everyone thought it would,’’ she said about her shoulder. “That was the frustrating thing, because it was like, ‘When is this going to end?’ ’’
It took until her 10th post-surgery Grand Slam tournament for Sharapova to get back to a major final, at Wimbledon last July, but she lost. She also reached the Australian Open final this January, but lost again.
Really, though, there’s something apropos about Sharapova’s fourth career Grand Slam title coming in Paris, rounding out the quartet at a spot that always seemed to present the most difficulties. Her powerful shots lose some sting on clay, and the footing can be tricky for anyone who didn’t grow up on the rust-colored stuff.
A global celebrity with millions of dollars in endorsement deals, Sharapova put herself through the grind required to get back to the top - and to get better than ever on red clay.
The work paid off. She is unbeaten in 16 matches on it this season, including titles at Stuttgart and Rome, and will return to No. 1 for the first time since June 2008 in Monday’s WTA rankings.
Posing at the net before the match, the 6-foot-2-inch Sharapova towered over the 5-4 1/2 Errani - then was head-and-shoulders above her when play began.
“I started badly, and that’s what bothers me the most,’’ said the 21st-seeded Errani, who admitted she was overcome by nerves at the outset.
Born 10 days apart in April 1987, both trained as kids at Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida. Both were playing in the French Open final for the first time.
The similarities end there, though. Sharapova was playing in her seventh Grand Slam singles final, Errani in her first, although she did team with Roberta Vinci to win the women’s doubles title Friday.
As lopsided as the eventual result was, Errani made Sharapova earn it with winner after winner, and a 37-12 edge in that category.
Top-seeded Max Mirnyi of Belarus and Daniel Nestor of Canada won a second consecutive French Open doubles title by beating American twins Bob and Mike Bryan, 6-4, 6-4.
The second-seeded Bryans were bidding to win their 12th Grand Slam doubles championship. That would have set a record for most in the Open era, which began in 1968.