Maria Sharapova has found her way on clay.
Many a great fast-court player has come to Roland Garros and never truly mastered the art of winning on the dirt. Think Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Lindsay Davenport.
Once admitting to moving like a “cow on ice” on the red dirt, the Russian set about capturing the one major missing from her collection, on her comeback from shoulder surgery in 2008. She would complete the set with a Roland Garros triumph in 2012.
It is the surface, which has brought out the steely Russian’s greatest fighting spirit and again that was on display in her third straight three-set comeback in a row against fast-rising Eugenie Bouchard.
In the same way Nadal adapted and learnt to play on grass, Sharapova has improved incrementally each year on what was traditionally her least-favourite surface. She has now won her past 19 three-set matches on the red dirt; her last three-set loss coming to one of the greatest clay-court players, Justine Henin, at Roland Garros 2010.
“I would love to win those matches in two sets, but I always feel like I put in the work to be ready to play whatever it takes. If it takes three hours to win the match in three sets, I will be ready for that,” Sharapova said.
No questioning, this Siberian was born tough. It bodes well when in the heat of battle.
“I'm not sure if that's something can you work on, 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,” she said. “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 … That's the type of philosophy that I play with.”
Six of the Russian’s last eight titles have now come on clay. She has the chance to make that seven from nine against Simona Halep on Saturday. In 2014 alone, she has collected clay-court titles in Stuttgart and Rome. Her feats are made all the more impressive since missing last year’s US Open due to injury.
“I think after not playing for five or six months, when you start winning a couple of titles and you get to the finals of a Grand Slam, it's easy to forget that you were away from the game and that you're battling an injury,” she said. “It's nice to sort of think back … and think where you came from and you got yourself back in this position.”
Bouchard pointed to a presence the former world No.1 brought to the court in what was the young Quebecois’ second Grand Slam semi-final. “I think she kind of elevated her game a little bit later on in the match … She fights for every point. Good players like that will take [chances] if you don't take them,” the 20-year-old said. “I think she always has a strong presence on the court … But that's how it is when you play a great champion. You definitely feel their presence. I want to do that as well on the court. I think it elevates the match.”
Sharapova did not bring her best to Philippe Chatrier Court for Thursday’s semi-final. And even after letting four set points slip to stand just two games from defeat against the fearless Bouchard, she still found a way. It echoed the pattern of her previous two matches against Garbine Muguruza and Sam Stosur where she found herself down a set and just two games from defeat.
She was up against a ruthlessly aggressive opponent with nothing to lose, on Thursday. “I don't feel that I played my best tennis today, but to be in the semi-finals 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,” she said.
How Bouchard handles the pressure when she is expected to win remains to be seen.
And provided Sharapova’s body allows her to compete at the highest level, she will keep finding a way. She will happily settle for an easier path to victory in Saturday’s decider, though. These three-set comebacks don't come easy.