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The tears said everything about how desperately Nadal wanted—needed, really—this victory over Djokovic. "If I had lost a fourth [major] final, this would have been very difficult for me," he said afterward. "I had to win. This is why there was a lot of emotion."
With seven French Open championships, breaking Björn Borg's record, Nadal, barely 26, cemented (clayed?) his status as the best player ever on the surface. Since 2005 his match record on red clay is 222--9. The crushed red brick of Roland Garros is ideally suited to his movement-based game, his defense-to-offense transitions and his curlicue lefthanded ground strokes, which hiss with topspin. But clay also rewards passion and determination and motivation, not to mention a taste for combat. In that last department, no one's palate is more cultivated than Nadal's. "I fight for every ball," he says. "That's what I do. I fight, I fight, I fight."
Sharapova, too, has an almost pathological hunger. She makes more money than any other female athlete on the planet. While she exceeded $20 million in career prize money last week, her empire has been built mostly on endorsement contracts with upscale brands such as Land Rover, Cole Haan, Tiffany and Evian. As successful as she's been on the court, the sponsors really line up to capitalize on—let's be honest here—her beauty and elegance.
The irony is, Sharapova's tennis game isn't easy on the eyes. She once endorsed Canon cameras with the slogan Make every shot a power shot, and it applies to her tennis. Sharapova simply blasts away, punctuating each shot with a keening RHHEEE-AAAHHHH that, suffice it to say, she is not asked to replicate for her corporate clients. There is little nuance in her play. She seldom comes to the net. Between the white lines, at least, "Maria full of grace" she is not.
What's more, Sharapova's life is unglamorous. She spends her days not at international discos and cafés but on the back practice courts, from Stuttgart to Shanghai, drilling and tinkering with her serve, which she has finally rebuilt into a reliable weapon. Hardly a natural athlete—she once memorably likened her own play on clay to "a cow on ice"—she often spends the first 45 minutes of practice without a racket in her hand, working on movement and footwork. Last week she walked through the players' lounge in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, hair matted to her face.
"It's not a show for me," she says. "It's my career. And I take it very seriously."
But combine her percussive ball striking, her Calvinist approach to work and her competitive instincts, and the result is a champion. Sharapova was devastatingly effective at the 2012 French Open. She beat her opponents into submission, treating their serves like those e-mails that Mailer-Daemon bounces right back. Having lost her most recent two Grand Slam finals, in Melbourne in January and at Wimbledon last July, she "bore down," as she put it, in the last match and didn't permit Sara Errani, a dogged underdog from Italy, to breathe. The score was 6--3, 6--2. If the cow wasn't doing figure eights, she had learned to skate just fine.
Reaching the final brought Sharapova the No. 1 WTA ranking, and winning gave her the career Grand Slam—singles trophies from each of the four majors—a feat that many more-decorated champions (Justine Henin, Monica Seles, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis) never achieved. An hour later Sharapova was still digesting her accomplishment. "No matter how many punches I took," she says, "I've always gotten back up."
Indeed, Sharapova's return to supremacy completed a fine comeback story. For the first chunk of her career she breezed along, winning three majors before she turned 21 and reaching the No. 1 ranking. Then she suffered a right-shoulder injury that made it difficult for her to lift her arm above her head. She had surgery in the fall of 2008 and was out of action for nearly a year. Upon returning, she lost to players she'd once crushed and struggled with the yips on her serve. Her ranking ballooned well into double figures.
Sharapova was young, famous and already wealthy to the point of abstraction. Plenty of other players similarly situated (Anna Kournikova jumps to mind) would have retired and enjoyed a life of leisure. Sharapova? The thought of another vocation never occurred to her. "It was a long road back, a lot of frustration and uncertainty," she says. "But, I mean, I've played tennis since I was four years old. I committed myself to this sport."