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What was it in particular that drew her back? "I love competing," she says flatly. "There's nothing else in the world that gives me that adrenaline feel—just being in the moment of a match. It's pressure and excitement and nerve, but getting through that and winning, beating an opponent? It's a different feeling [than you get] in other careers."
As for her own career, she has taken full ownership of it. Her father, Yuri, once omnipresent, hasn't been on the scene for years. She tells members of her small entourage—coach Thomas Hogstedt, a hitting partner, a conditioning coach—precisely where they must sit during her matches. She concedes that she doesn't heed Hogstedt's tactical advice. "I go out there and do my own thing," she says, "and after the match he's like, Really? What's the point of having me?"
Sharapova's independence and her unapologetic appetite for competition are happy anomalies on the WTA Tour. The women's game is in chaos not because of a lack of talent but because of a collective lack of nerve. Five times running, the winner of a major has crashed early at the next one. The defending champ in Paris, China's Li Na, bombed out against a qualifier ranked outside the top 100. Sam Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open winner, reverted to her old ways and choked in the semifinals against Errani. Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki began the year atop the rankings but plummeted to No. 7. Even Serena Williams, normally a pillar of inner fortitude, fell in the first round in Paris to France's Virginie Razzano after having the match in hand. Sharapova? As former French Open champion Amélie Mauresmo put it, "She is so completely involved in winning. Mental strength is her strength."
Sharapova heads to the All England Club as the WTA's new queen, suddenly the player to beat on the grass at both Wimbledon—the tournament at which she broke through eight years ago—and the Olympics. And, scary for the rest of the field, she knows it. "I'm not sitting here and saying I'm done, because I'm far from it," she says. "I have a lot more in me to achieve."
The same goes for Nadal. Having solved what a member of his camp called "the Novak riddle," he has caused the dimensions of the men's game to be recalibrated yet again. Djokovic may still be No. 1, but Nadal, having beaten his rival in three straight finals now, is again playing the leading role.
One of the other great legacies of this top-heavy era in tennis is the death of the surface specialist. Both Nadal and Djokovic are formidable no matter what is underfoot—asphalt, clay or grass. So the rivalry between the young Spaniard and the Serb, and thus the sinuous plot of men's tennis, will continue at Wimbledon and the London Games.
On Monday afternoon, though, Nadal wasn't contemplating the future but, rather, savoring the present. In keeping with his careerlong ritual, he bit the French Open trophy, tasting glory along with that metallic edge. The hunger? It had been sated. At least for a day.