By Alix Ramsay
Drowned out by the shrieks and the groans that form the soundtrack to women’s tennis these days, no one noticed the yelp of delight from a posh part of Paris early last week. It was Maria Sharapova celebrating the departure of Serena Williams in the second round. Shazza’s path was now clear; the French Open could be hers again.
Of all the opponents she has ever faced, Serena is the one who rubs her nose in the dirt every time. Eighteen times they have played and on all but two occasions, big Rene has won. Shazza’s last victory came in 2004 and since then she has been trashed in finals, semifinals and quarters around the globe. No matter what the surface, no matter what the continent, Shazza takes a pasting. And now Rene was on her way home and the trophy was up for grabs.
There was only one slight flaw in this plan: the opposition. Shazza is now a stately 27 years of age; she is one of the old gals of the tour and the young hopefuls on their way up have little respect for their elders. To claim her place in the final, she had to get the better of Eugenie Bouchard, the 20-year-old Canadian whose eye watering lack of humour is matched only by her total focus on her career. The 2012 champion won the day 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 but she had fight like never before.
There is a picture of the two women taken 12 years ago and it is doing the rounds on the internet. At the time, Shaz was 15 and already tipped for greatness (she was just two years away from winning Wimbledon) and Genie was a star-struck autograph hunter. She captured her prey and persuaded someone to take the snap: Genie barely coming up to Shazza’s elbow and Shaz smiling cheerily for the camera.
To look at them there, there is little to suggest that they would be vying for the chance to win a grand slam trophy a dozen years later. What the photo does not reveal is just how similar they are. Sharapova’s fight, grit and sheer bloody mindedness is well known but in Bouchard, she was facing a mirror image. Sure enough, these days Genie still struggles to come up to Shazza’s shoulder, but she scraps, she scurries and she simply will not give in.
As the match dragged into the third set and the third hour, finally the multiple grand slam champion was getting her way. Surely now the young upstart would fold, would realise that she was not welcome in such august company. Did she heck as like. She was having the devil’s own job holding serve but she was not giving those games away without a struggle. The final game lasted for 12 points and seemed to go on for ever but when, at last, Shazza got her way, she pumped her fist, she jumped for joy and she looked like she had just won the lottery. Genie had almost done for her and she knew that she had had a lucky escape.
“I’m happy with the result because I’m in the finals,” she said. “That’s one thing to be happy about. I don’t feel that I played my best tennis today, but to be in the semifinals of a grand slam and winning a match where I felt my opponent played extremely well, exceptional tennis and I didn’t feel that I was playing my best, I fought, I scrambled, and I found a way to win. I’m happy and proud about that.”
Now that she is in the final, trying to prise the cup from her vice-like grip will not be easy but if anyone is game to try, it is Simona Halep, the 6-2, 7-6 winner over Andrea Petkovic. That win pushed Halep to No.3 in the rankings while her failure to drop a set on the way to her first major final has marked her out as someone to be avoided at all costs in the draw. She has been marching to the top of the game for the past 18 months and no one seems able to stop her. Well, no one save for Shazza.
She beat Halep just a handful of weeks ago in the Madrid final but, even then, it took three sets to do it. She knows she will have a fight on her hands but for all her fame and fortune, for all her photo-shoots and red carpet evenings, there is nothing Shazza does better or relishes more than a good, old fashioned dust-up.
“I’m not sure if that’s something can you work on,” she mused, “but I think when you’re forced to be in those situations when you’re either not playing good or you find yourself in a losing position, I just don’t want to give up, because I work too hard to just let something go and let a match go.
“You put so much effort, you and your team, to get to this position. If some things are not working out, I don’t just want to quit in the middle. Because when you lose the first set or a few games or you’re down a break, that’s not the end of the match. That’s the type of philosophy that I play with. At the end of the day, it’s not how you finish a first set, it’s how you finish the last set.”
How she finishes that last set on Saturday remains to be seen but one thing we can be sure of: whatever the result, Sharapova will be prepared to sweat blood to claim the trophy.