French Open 2012: Sharapova Shines And Errani Rises

Thoughts on Maria Sharapova's 2012 French Open title and Sara Errani's rapid rise.

Superior focus and discipline will get you pretty far in tennis. Being 6'2 and powerful will get you the rest of the way. With a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Sara Errani on a windy Saturday in Paris, Maria Sharapova became the 10th woman in tennis history to have won all four grand slams in a career.

Though Errani acquitted herself relatively well, this match was Sharapova's from the beginning. On the match's first point, Sharapova hit a sharp first serve down the T, which set up an easy crosscourt backhand winner. By the time Errani could get herself into the match, she had dropped 15 of the first 20 points.

At 4-0 in the first set, NBC assistants were most likely busy looking up "shortest women's final ever" stats in their record books (Steffi Graf beat Natasha Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0, in 32 minutes in 1988, and good lord, I don't see how that record will ever be broken). But to Errani's credit, she fought back. She did a wonderful job in winning long rallies all day; the problem, of course, was that Sharapova was creating so many short, easy points. The lanky Russian won 69 percent of the points on her first serve and 62 percent of the points on Errani's second, and that simply left Errani with no margin for error whatsoever, especially considering Sharapova was also winning 54 percent of the points on Errani's first serves.

Three further thoughts on the conclusion of the women's French Open:

1. Swing Hard. Here are the players to whom Maria Sharapova has lost in the last seven months: Serena Williams (6-1, 6-3 in Madrid), Agnieszka Radwanska (7-5, 6-4 in Miami), Victoria Azarenka (6-2, 6-3 in Indian Wells), Angelique Kerber (6-4, 6-4 in Paris), Azarenka again (6-3, 6-0 in Melbourne). Throw in Li Na, Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Flavia Pennetta, and you've got all the people who have defeated Sharapova in the last 10 months. Aside from perhaps Radwanska, these are some of the biggest hitters in the women's game. Sharapova will make errors and give you opportunities, but right now you can only beat her if you can match her offense. (And you can only beat her in straight sets -- she has won 22 of her last 23 three-set matches. That is simply absurd focus and fitness.) Errani's game is like David Ferrer's on the men's side -- defense, speed, fitness and occasional offense. It took Errani long rallies to set up most of her 12 winners (Sharapova had 37). Sharapova just isn't going to give you much time to take her down.

2. An Incredible Rise For Errani. Before the second week of the French Open, Sara Errani was winless all-time versus the women's top 10. Now she is expected to be IN the Top 10 when the next rankings are released this week. It has been one hell of a surge for the Italian, who began the season ranked outside of the top 40. She advanced to her first slam quarterfinal in January's Australian Open. She won tournaments in Acapulco (she defeated Flavia Pennetta in the finals), Barcelona (6-2, 6-2 over Dominika Cibulkova) and Budapest (7-5, 6-4 over Elena Vesnina). She won the French Open doubles finals on Friday. And, in her 13th match (singles and doubles) of the fortnight, she took home a decent-sized piece of silver. She was clearly the second-best player not he court on Saturday, but there is no shame in losing to Sharapova right now.

3. There Is Not Much Dead Weight In The Top 10. During the match, NBC showed the new projected WTA Top 10:

1. Maria Sharaova
2. Victoria Azarenka
3. Agnieszka Radwanska
4. Petra Kvitova
5. Sam Stosur
6. Serena Williams
7. Caroline Wozniacki
8. Marion Bartoli
9. Angelique Kerber
10. Sara Errani

The women's game has struggled with depth in recent years. Jelena Jankovic, currently No. 21 in the world, held the No. 1 ranking on multiple occasions, as did Ana Ivanovic (currently No. 14). Neither player has lost her game entirely, but the world has, to some extent, passed them by. To an extent, you could say the same about Wozniacki, though at only 21 she still has time to raise her game. (Then again, considering how she's sunk from first to seventh, and considering Rory McElroy had missed three straight cuts heading into this weekend … actually, nevermind. Young love is young love.)

The current top 10 now has two young power hitters (Azarenka, Kvitova) who have probably not yet peaked, two women who have won a career slam (Sharapova, Williams), another player who can blow you off the court when she's in a rhythm (Stosur, who whipped Williams in last year's U.S. Open final), and some fantastic defensive players (Radwanska, Wozniacki, Errani). The power vacuum is not totally gone by any means -- only three of the top nine seeds made the French semifinals -- but it is improving. Underdog stories are enjoyable, but when the top players meet repeatedly in important matches, they bring out the best possible tennis. We need to see more of it from the women, but we're getting there. Sharapova will only retain the top spot as long as she can maintain this level of play; Azarenka, Kvitova and others will be ready to seize the No. 1 ranking otherwise.

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